Poisoning Girls in Sar-e Pol Province and the Issue of Women’s Education
By: Mohammad Ali Nazari
The conflict surrounding the education of girls in Afghanistan has been ongoing for a long time. In the last century, this conflict has been a consistent feature of Afghan politics. Former King of Afghanistan Amanullah Khan advocated for the education of women and girls, but when his government was overthrown, King Habibullah Kalakani sent the girls who had gone to Turkey to continue their education back home. During Nader Khan‘s reign, policies against women and against women‘s education persisted, but during the 40–year rule of his son Zahir Shah, relatively good opportunities were made available to women, with women being able to attain high–ranking government positions, including representatives of the parliament and the ministry. Since then, the education and work of women have been one of the major issues in our society. One regime and government may support women‘s education and work, providing a minimum of opportunity, but then another regime will come along that views women‘s education as a sin. The present time is one of the darker periods for the country, particularly in terms of women‘s education and work.
Opposition to women‘s education is not exclusive to Afghanistan; it has also been seen in Iran, where the ruling system does not explicitly oppose the education of women, but some do not consider it necessary to educate women in fields such as engineering. In Afghanistan, however, this opposition comes from the ruling system, which is not only limited to political circles but has also been extended to roads and other public spaces. During the reign of Zahir Shah, when girls in Kabul were going to school in uniform, a group of radical Islamist youths threw acid on their faces on the road, and this action continued for a period of time. When the first period of the Taliban came to an end and the environment for education and work for women became somewhat favorable, some movements and groups began to take criminal and destructive actions in order to prevent girls from receiving an education and women from working. Girls and women were subjected to acid attacks on the roads of Kandahar, Herat, and Kabul, and many girls‘ schools throughout the country were set ablaze by Taliban forces. Although these measures could not prevent girls from receiving an education at the time, disturbances were created in areas where the government of the Islamic Republic did not have full control, resulting in hundreds of thousands of girls and boys being deprived of education. Some of those boys who were deprived of education are now managing the war of the Taliban. This year, the Taliban have enrolled some of their fighting forces in schools, and for some of them, they have provided the opportunity to receive the 12th–grade certificate by holding a mock exam. When we look at the published pictures of this group of Taliban, we can see that some of them are teenagers and most of them are young. In areas where there was no war or at least not under the rule of the Taliban, boys and girls of the same age went to school and now, at the age of thirty, they do not need literacy classes.
Reports have emerged that young girls have been poisoned in the schools of Sar–e Pol Province, coinciding with the Taliban‘s orders to prohibit the education and work of women. This incident, in addition to the closure of educational centers for girls in the Provinces of Kabul and Ghazni, suggests that the poisoning is part of a series of actions taken by those who oppose women and girls‘ education. During their two periods of rule, the Taliban emptied universities and schools of girls.
During this period, although the education of girls below the sixth grade has not been officially prohibited, unofficial actions are being taken in this direction, which is likely linked to the Taliban‘s opposition to the education of girls. Examples of this include Taliban fighters changing school buildings to military bases and the poisoning of female students. Similarly, such objections to the education of girls have also occurred in Iran, with acid being splashed on the faces of girls and women and serial poisonings of female students taking place in Iranian schools, including this year. The attack on schools in Iran coincided with the “Women, Life, Freedom“ movement, and there were reports of night letters being disseminated by a religious group, which supposedly stated that girls’ education is forbidden and its continuation is in opposition to Imam Zaman (last of twelve imams of Shias) and threatened to extend the poisoning of girls throughout Iran if girls‘ schools were not closed. Some associates of the Iranian government attempted to attribute these poisonings to sectarian conflicts. However, due to the widespread nature of the poisonings and the fact that no one was arrested and prosecuted in connection with it, while a number of young Iranians were even arrested due to street protests and have been executed, this strengthens the suspicion that there may have been some alignments between a number of governments and individuals involved in that poisoning. There is clear opposition to the education of girls in Afghanistan from the current government and its like–minded groups.
Opposition to women‘s education in Afghanistan does not need to be communicated through night letters, as the Taliban group now has control of government platforms which are used to express such opposition, and Taliban officials are very vocal about it.
The Taliban, Women, and Development
The Taliban‘s subversive attitude towards education, particularly the education of women, has been observed in the past and is likely to continue in the future. Due to the fact that a large proportion of their leaders and forces lack adequate literacy, the Taliban find themselves disadvantaged and lacking in terms of education, literacy and expertise. In addition to their ideological stance, this also leads them to oppose education.
The appointment of mullahs who have never attended university or school to the heads of educational institutions with the aim of reducing the literacy level of the Afghan student community to their level of understanding and literacy, thus destroying the quality of these institutions and bringing them down to the level of backward traditional schools, may be seen as a simple way to balance the literacy level of students and society. However, this deprives the students of the opportunity and context to improve their literacy and understanding according to the level of academic society.
The Taliban have not declared their opposition to the education of boys, and in practice, they do not oppose it. However, their appointment of partially–educated people to the head of educational institutions and universities, and their inappropriate treatment of professional professors, may be a way of preparing the ground for these professors to leave the university. This could be due to the Taliban feeling humiliated and making retaliatory decisions, which could include harming and attacking seven– and eight–year–old girls. Although it is not clear who is responsible for the poisoning incident in Sar–e Pol, it is likely to have been carried out by one of the groups that oppose the education of girls. The Taliban have not taken any action against those responsible for the poisonings.
Women’s Education and the Issue of Human Resources Development
One of the most important indicators of development is the human force, which should be composed of educated and trained individuals. Without education, there is no development or civilization. People do not possess a comprehensive understanding of the matters that surround them, but they gain knowledge of them through their family, society, school, and university. These educated people will eventually contribute to development. In post–2021 Afghanistan, the departure of hundreds of thousands of educated people has caused a delay in the country‘s development. Even if a democratic and legitimate system is formed today with the full support of the people and has development–oriented programs, the damage caused to society by the absence of educated forces cannot be easily remedied.
One of the social issues in Afghan society is the disconnect between generations. Those who attended school prior to the first Taliban era, particularly women, have been unable to form a strong bond with those who attended school and university after 2001. A few years of decreased education for men and the prohibition of it for women has had a negative effect on inter–generational communication, resulting in the two generations having little in common. Even parents have had a great disparity of opinion with their children and have been unable to understand each other, which has had a detrimental impact on social cohesion.
From an economic perspective, women are currently a powerful component of the household economy in even the most closed societies and darkest periods of time. In cities, women are engaged in a variety of occupations, from shoe–shining to teaching and handicrafts, in order to contribute to the household‘s living expenses. In rural areas, women often assist the men of the family more in providing for their living expenses. From the start of spring, women work alongside men in agricultural fields and continue to do so until late autumn. Afterwards, until the following spring, men help the family with animal husbandry, spinning, and sewing. In villages, women work outside the home more than in cities, and tasks such as harvesting and collecting products from different parts of the country are not gender–specific. Even families whose men are away and the women are left in charge of the household are able to carry out all necessary tasks, from gathering firewood in the mountains to planting, cultivating, and collecting crops. However, if these women are only given this role, society and the country will not be able to progress.
For decades, countries that have exploited oil to construct luxurious buildings and roads have done so without the involvement of women. Now, as they prepare for a post–oil era, their first priority should be to restore women‘s rights and ensure their participation in political, social, and economic activities, in order to bolster the human forces of development. A prime example of this is Saudi Arabia.
The Taliban have declared that they are not accountable for anyone‘s circumstances. Rather, they claim to be guiding people to heaven according to their own beliefs or forcing them to do so. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, has stated that the world is not a place to live in without a plan for global development, and thus they do not feel the need to develop human resources. Consequently, in such a regime, half of the population can be denied access to education, young girls can be poisoned, and as a result, they will be excluded from society, culture, politics, and economy, leading to an illiterate, impoverished, and underdeveloped society; an island isolated from other countries that cannot be connected to other societies.