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The Taliban Is Now Denying Education To Women (Again)

I got to Afghanistan for the first time in 1969 and I just fell in love with the country. Driving there was more like traveling back in time than traveling across the nearly 4,700 miles from London in my trusty VW van. Some of the roads back then— primarily in eastern Turkey and eastern Iran were unpaved and heavily rutted by the constant truck traffic. There were no cars, just trucks. That was the Hippie Trail and whenever you got someplace groovy you settled down for a while. Kabul was one of those places. Everybody on the road that year spent time in Kabul. The Afs had the best hash in the world and it was unregulated for the government. With only slightly more trouble you could buy coke and opiates, including over the counter in pharmacies.

What brought this up today? Really sad reports coming out of Kabul that the Taliban has banned women— effective immediately— from universities. Agency France-Presse released a wire that the ministry of higher education sent a letter to all government and private universities saying “You all are informed to implement the mentioned order of suspending education of females until further notice.”

The ban on higher education comes less than three months after thousands of girls and women sat university entrance exams across the country, with many aspiring to choose engineering and medicine as future careers.
After the takeover of Afghanistan by the hardline Islamists in August last year, universities were forced to implement new rules including gender-segregated classrooms and entrances, and women were only permitted to be taught by female professors or old men.
Most Afghan teenage girls have already been banned from secondary school education, severely limiting university intake.
The Taliban adhere to an austere version of Islam, with the movement’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and his inner circle of Afghan clerics opposed to modern education, particularly for girls and women.
But they are at odds with many officials in Kabul and some of their rank and file, who had hoped girls would be allowed to continue learning after the takeover.
Women have been pushed out of many government jobs or are being paid a slashed salary to stay at home. They are also barred from travelling without a male relative, and must cover up outside the home, ideally with a burqa.
In November they were prohibited from going to parks, funfairs, gyms and public baths.
In a cruel U-turn, the Taliban in March blocked girls from returning to secondary schools on the morning they were supposed to reopen.
Several Taliban officials say the secondary education ban is only temporary, but have given a litany of excuses for the closure, from a lack of funds to time needed to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines.
Since the ban, many teenage girls have been married off early, often to much older men of their father’s choice.
Coupled with economic pressure, several families interviewed by AFP last month said that securing their daughters’ future through marriage was better than them sitting idle at home.
The international community has made the right to education for all women a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the Taliban regime.
“The international community has not and will not forget Afghan women and girls,” the UN security council said in a statement in September.
In the 20 years between the Taliban’s two reigns, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though the country remained socially conservative.

When I was in Afghanistan— before the Russian invasion— opportunities were education for girls were very limited. (Americans never talk about it, but the socialist government backed by the Russians did a great deal to give Afghan women some degree of equality.)

On the way to Kabul from Kandahar, I visited two friends from college, Paul and Siouxsie, who were serving in the Peace Corps in Ghazni, a small ancient city that I recall being made mostly of mud. There were no tourists that I ever saw in 1969, although I recall these two fascinating minarets built in 1100. It took almost 45 years after I was there until they got their first airport. Paul, an engineer, was working on water projects and Siouxsie was teach young girls either Pashtun or Dari— I can’t remember, there own language. That was because girls’ had an incredibly limited vocabulary in Afghanistan— lots of words for rice but not many words for anything abstract. They talked about sex a lot, Siouxsie told me.

Kabul is only about 90 miles northwest and the American-built road was well-paved. It took me about 3 hours to drive there. But it was another world— a big city and relatively cosmopolitan inasmuch as there were hippies, a couple of cafes and restaurants, a post office and one western-style hotel, the Intercontinental, while opened a month or two before we got there. My two Canadian friends stayed there. It was like a window back into the modern world. I often parked my van in their parking lot and slept there, and used the hotel’s facilities.

Anyway, back to education for women. It wasn’t illegal but poor families couldn’t afford it and rich families sent their daughters abroad for educations, mostly to France I believe. One day I was about to enter a warren of allies that made up the market when a Mercedes limo drove up to the spot where I was going to enter. There were almost no cars in Afghanistan at the time; there were some but it was still relatively a rarity. So everyone stopped and stared. The chauffeur got out and opened the passenger door and two modestly-dressed young women got out, modestly-dressed but in western clothes. They were chatting in French. An Afghan friend I was with told me whose daughters they were and said they had graduated from the Sorbonne and just come home recently.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gang of mullahs— maybe 5 or 6 of them— appeared and started spitting— like clamming is a better description— all over the women. The chauffeur pushed them back into the car and drove away as fast as he could. That’s one of the only negative memories I have of my twin trips to Afghanistan— aside from being arrested at the Russian border and thrown into a prison that was little more than a hole in the earth. My business partner was a nephew of the king and he got me out before night and he got my van and 50 kilos of hash back the next day— along with a warning about trying to smuggle hash out of the country.

Anyway, the Taliban was getting a ton of bad press today over the shutdown of women’s education. So they released two American prisoners as a "goodwill gesture" to try to smooth things over a little. I don’t think it’s working, although I can see how it would make sense to a Afghan mindset.

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