The war in Afghanistan has not spared the country’s education system. Schools have become politicized, both due to religious extremism and the quest for political power in this Islamic country, where some are trying to introduce an ideological dimension into the education sector. In theory, the Afghan government encourages girls’ access to education, but in practice, girls in some parts of the country are still restricted from attending school.
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Although gender equality is in the Afghan constitution, the gap exists and is serious. Najiba Arian, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Education, says that there are currently 9.7 million students in school in the country, of which 42% are girls. However, almost 3.7 million children of school age (of which 60% are girls) are outside the school system.
Difficulties in accessing education are more pronounced in the southern and eastern provinces of the country, says Arian, not only because of insecurity, but also because of the persistence of traditional and tribal customs. Most of these areas belong to ethnic groups and are under the control of the Taliban, who ruled the country in the 1990s and who, despite their recent declarations of change, continue to oppose the education of girls and boys. women, for example destroying schools that have been built in the last 20 years.
However, these and other challenges have pushed Afghan women not to give up.
In 2015, the Ministry of Education introduced a controversial reform plan that introduced uniforms for female students – long, dark-colored dresses that covered the entire body, similar to those worn by extremist Islamist groups. Many civil society activists condemned the plan, arguing that the clothing not only promoted extremism, but was also too hot to wear in summer, when schools are open in the country. Finally, the Ministry had to abandon the idea. In some parts of the country, where conservatism and tribal customs remain strong, young women wear this type of clothing – which also covers their faces – despite the high temperatures, making it difficult both to go to school and to pay attention. in class.
An online, spontaneous and leaderless mobilization
However, the battle for gender equality in Afghan schools has recently taken on a new hue, thanks to an online movement for women’s rights that aims to give a voice to those who have been silenced for too long: the Choral Campaign Ma ‘arif (which means education).
The campaign was the result of the outrage aroused after one of the departments of the Ministry of Education announced, in March 2020, that female students over 12 years of age were now prohibited from singing in school choirs, either in public or in front of men. .
Spontaneous and leaderless, the mobilization took an original form. More than a hundred women posted videos on the Internet, singing songs from their childhoods and questioning why girls were prevented from singing two decades after the fall of the Taliban government. The campaign garnered broad support from public opinion, on a sustained basis.
Once again, the protest managed to push back the government. The Ministry of Education ended up issuing a statement in which it argued that the plan “did not reflect the official position and policy of the Ministry.” Wahid Omar, advisor to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, stated: “No individual or institution can set limits on citizens, [sería] contrary to the spirit of the Constitution of the country “.
The failed plan to merge schools with mosques
In early 2021, the government tried another maneuver, this time to merge schools with mosques for the first three years of the primary school curriculum – presumably to ensure the influence of radical Islamist circles, such as the Taliban. but again stopped short after a wave of online protests. Education Minister Assadullah Hanif Balkhi justified himself at the time by saying that the program aimed to facilitate access to education for students in areas without schools, and that the reform plan had been misinterpreted.
“Both the plan to merge schools with mosques during the first three years of education and to prohibit female students older than 12 from singing in schools are efforts to radicalize and ‘talibanize’ the Afghan education system,” lamented Fariha Esaar , one of the activists who sang for the cameras during the choral campaign.
Now, with the withdrawal of foreign military forces and the possibility of an escalation of the civil war in the country, he added, there is great concern about the influence of the armed group in some circles. “We cannot remain silent. We must stand up and prevent extremism from intruding into the educational system. This time we have succeeded, but we need more structural action plans to guarantee gender equality, and so that political decisions do not exclude people. women”.
Ghulam Dastgir Munir, a teacher and education expert, claims he was suspended from his post at a public school after openly criticizing radical initiatives such as educating boys in mosques and banning girls from singing. For him, the main challenge continues to be the distribution of places and positions in the education sector, which are currently not assigned based on experience but on political affiliation. To ensure gender equality and depoliticize schools, he says, appointments must be free of all political affiliation.
The Ma’arif choral campaign is an example of success in civil society’s fight for gender equality in Afghanistan. But a long-term plan of action is necessary to end inequalities in schools. One that increases the rate of female teachers and sensitizes families about the importance of girls’ education, especially in isolated areas.