fAccording to reports from Kabul, many female students ran to their universities without help. There they had acted immediately and closed the doors to women. The order sent by the Taliban government’s higher education ministry on Tuesday evening was as brief as it was clear: women are not allowed to study at public or private universities in Afghanistan until further notice.
The access of women to universities was perhaps the most obvious contradiction in Taliban politics. Very quickly after taking power, the Islamists had closed schools for girls above sixth grade practically everywhere in the summer of 2021 – even if some exceptions were tolerated at the local level. But women could continue to teach and study at the universities, albeit under severe restrictions.
Short term retreat
Of course, people wondered where the future students should come from. But recently the government surprisingly allowed girls to take their final exams, even though they weren’t allowed to go to school. Some saw this as a cautious sign that the Taliban government is still planning to open the schools completely and is thus responding to the demand that the international community, with rare unanimity, is addressing to the Taliban. It also comes from large parts of the Afghan population right down to traditional, deeply religious circles. Education, including girls, is a priority in Afghanistan, where there are few opportunities to escape economic misery.
But such considerations are apparently of secondary importance for the Taliban leadership – as is the prospect that the international community could relax sanctions and help the country out of the serious humanitarian crisis once the issue of girls’ education has been cleared up. This was already clearly evident in March. The Islamist government had never explicitly opposed girls’ education and had always emphasized that secondary schools were only closed until classes according to the “rules of Islam” were possible. In the spring, the responsible ministry even named a day on which all years should be open again for girls, March 23rd. But then the girls had to go home that day because the government had pulled out at short notice, international donors or not.
At the time, various sources said that a small group of hardliners, close to the Emir Haibatullah Achundsada, had taken a surprisingly clear stand against the opening of the schools within the Islamist leadership. Accordingly, the majority in the cabinet actually supported the opening and wanted to settle the problems with the international community as far as possible. But the Taliban do not openly resolve such internal conflicts. Ever since it was founded during the civil war, they have seen themselves as a counter-model to the old Mujahideen, who tore the country down with their internal strife. What’s more, within the Taliban, the Emir always has the last word, that Haibatullah Achundsada, who lives in strict isolation in conservative Kandahar and practically never comes to Kabul.
Increasingly absurd conditions
Achundsada – about whom little is known – is said to have always been behind the closure of schools. Some in Kabul hoped that they might reconsider their point of view, after many conservative Islamic scholars pointed out that the Koran in no way speaks out against education for women. But other arguments count for many hawks, such as the concern that the simple Islamist fighters and the tribal leaders in the south would not tolerate the Taliban softening their own dogmas after they took power. This faction, it seems, is being bolstered by every outcry from the international community and threats of new sanctions. The fact that the country is isolated and that the progress of the 20-year-old republic is going down the drain is definitely desirable for some hardliners.
However, especially at the smaller, private universities, of which there were many in education-hungry Afghanistan, the increasingly far-reaching restrictions were perceived as deliberate strangulation before the Taliban leadership dared to complete the final step of the closure. Increasingly absurd conditions, especially with regard to the separation of the sexes, had recently made teaching for female students almost impossible. In principle, the exclusion of all women had apparently already been made in the spring. Tuesday evening’s order refers to Cabinet Decree 28. The former university minister had only ever postponed its implementation, thus expressing the influence of the moderates in the cabinet – until he was replaced in October.
The fact that facts are now being created fits in with the picture that the Taliban have given in recent months. The repression was intensified, the work of journalists was made more difficult if not impossible, corporal punishment and even executions were carried out in public.