Afghan female activists urged the international community Friday to keep the pressure on the Taliban to let girls return to school, saying Afghanistan’s new de facto rulers cannot be allowed to normalize gender discrimination.

“Don’t let the Taliban’s oppression be normalized,” Shaharzad Akbar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told a virtual event on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. “Don’t pretend that it is part of Afghan culture or part of Islam — our religion — to have women oppressed and deprived of their basic human rights.”

Fawzia Koofi, the first female deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament, echoed that.

“Women’s liberty, girls’ freedom — including education in Afghanistan — is a sign of an Afghanistan that could live in peace and harmony with its citizens and with the world,” Koofi said from Qatar, where she fled with her children at the end of August. “So do not think an Afghanistan that is oppressing its nation — oppressing 55% of society to stay in the midst of nowhere — could be a reliable partner to you. It will not.”

Rerun seen on female rights

The Taliban swept into the capital, Kabul, on August 15, after President Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed. In the intervening weeks, they have announced their interim government, which has no female members. The Taliban have also said girls would be allowed to return to school at the right time, but so far, they have allowed only primary school-age girls to return. Female secondary school and university students remain sidelined.

This is a rerun of what happened when the Taliban seized power in 1996, Koofi said, when so-called temporary measures eventually became permanent.

The female activists emphasized that education for girls and women is a right both in Islam and in the Afghan Constitution.

The U.N. says 4.2 million Afghan children are not enrolled in school, and much of this can be blamed on COVID-19 closures. Around 60% are girls.

“We have to get them back in. We have to make sure they are integrating,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF.

“We can do more with distance education and remote learning,” Fore said, addressing ways to make sure girls’ learning is not interrupted. “We need to have women teachers going back to schools, and we need more women teachers.”

But Koofi said remote learning for girls is not a substitute for being in the classroom, which “demonstrates the power and the future of Afghanistan.”

But what will await them at school is another concern for activists.

“I am as worried about the changes the Taliban will bring to curriculum, especially the curriculum studied by girls, as about the ban on the schools,” Akbar said.

Scholarships, opportunities

The activists, including the young captain of Afghanistan’s now famous all-female robotics team, urged support from the international community in providing scholarships for female students to study abroad and collaborating with Afghan universities to broaden opportunities for girls and women.

One thing is clear: They say the Taliban are afraid of women’s empowerment.

“I was targeted for speaking out for girls’ education,” said Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot by Taliban gunmen in her northern Pakistani town as a teenager in 2012. “And it proved to me that the Taliban were scared of the voice of women and girls.” 

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