The protracted war in Afghanistan has weakened the entire education system in the Islamic country. Power struggles and religious extremism have led to the politicization of education, with some circles trying to introduce ideology into the school system. Officially, the government is in favor of girls’ access to education, but culturally some of them still face restrictions in some parts of the country.
While on paper the Afghan constitution guarantees gender equality, in practice there are serious problems.
According to Najiba Arian, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, there are currently 9.7 million students in the country, 42% of whom are girls. But 3.7 million children do not go to school, 60% of them girls.
Difficulties in accessing the school system are greatest in the southern and eastern provinces, according to Arian, not only for security reasons but also because of tribal and traditional customs.
Most of these areas, which belong to defined ethnic groups, are controlled by the Taliban, the armed faction which ruled the country in the 1990s and which still opposes the education of women, despite recent demands by change. Schools built over the past 20 years are being destroyed by the group.
But these and other challenges have led Afghan women to fight for their rights, sometimes with positive results. In 2015, the country’s education ministry presented a controversial plan involving uniforms covering the bodies of students with long, dark clothing, similar to those of Islamic extremist groups. Civil society activists challenged the measure, saying the costume not only encouraged extremism, but was also too hot during the summer, when schools are operating across the country. The ministry had to abandon the plan.
In parts of Afghanistan, where conservatism and tribal customs prevail, girls wear long, dark clothing that covers their entire body, including their face, despite the frequent high temperatures, making it difficult for them to go at school or even to take care of their children.
But now, the battle for gender equality in Afghanistan’s educational environment has taken on a new tone, thanks to an online women’s rights movement that hopes to make the voices heard of those who have remained silent during so long – the Ma’arif Choir Campaign (word meaning education).
The campaign was born out of the outrage caused by an advertisement from one of the departments of the Ministry of Education in March 2020 prohibiting students over 12 from singing in school choirs in public and in front of men.
Spontaneous and leaderless protests have started taking place online, due to the coronavirus pandemic, in a very original way. More than 100 women have posted videos online of singing songs from their childhood, asking why female college students should be banned from singing two decades after the dismal Taliban regime fell. This generated broad and lasting support for the campaign.
Once again, the protests made the government back down, and the ministry eventually issued a statement saying the plan “did not reflect the official position and policy of the ministry.” Wahid Omar, adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, said: “No individual or institution can impose limits on its citizens, [o que é] contrary to the spirit of the country’s Constitution “.
Earlier this year, the government attempted another measure, this time to merge schools with mosques during the first three years of primary school – presumably to gain influence against radical Islamic groups like the Taliban – but the decision was quickly overturned after online protests.
Education Minister Assadullah Hanif Balkhi said the plan was for students to have access to education in areas where there are no schools and it had been misinterpreted.
During the choir’s campaign, Fariha Esaar, one of the activists who sang in front of a camera, said: “The plan to mix schools and mosques and the plan to ban female students from singing in schools are efforts to radicalize and Talibanize the Taliban. educational system. Afghanistan “.
Now, with the withdrawal of foreign forces and the possibility of an escalating civil war in the country, she added, the group’s influence in some circles is causing serious concern.
“We cannot remain silent in this regard. Let us stand up and prevent the influence of extremism in the education sector. We have succeeded in this campaign, but we must have more plans to ensure gender equality, so that political decisions do not exclude women. “
Education expert Ghulam Dastgir Munir said he was suspended from his teaching post at a public school because of his harsh criticism of extremist initiatives such as educating children in mosques and banning singing girls. The main challenge, he said, is to ensure that positions in the education sector are awarded on the basis of experience and not political affiliation. Thus, the process of ensuring gender equality and de-politicizing schools must be free from political affiliation.
The Ma’arif choir campaign is a successful example of a civil society movement in Afghanistan. However, a long-term action plan is needed to ensure gender equality in the education sector – a plan that improves teachers’ salaries and raises awareness among families, especially in remote areas of the country, to that more girls can go to school.
This report is published as part of the “Towards Equality” project, an international and collaborative initiative that brings together 15 media to present the challenges and solutions to achieve gender equality.