Afghan girls allowed back in universities, but segregated

AP Photo/Mohammad Asif Khan

We don’t see much in the way of good news coming out of Afghanistan these days, so perhaps people will be able to take some hope from reports showing that universities have reopened in three of the country’s largest cities, Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. I found that news surprising considering how recently all of the country’s population centers were essentially shut down and blacked out after the Taliban swept back into power. Even more surprising was this report from Reuters claiming that females were being allowed to attend classes. That announcement came with a couple of caveats, however, most notably the fact that the female students are now being segregated from the males. This is reportedly being accomplished by either sending them to a female-only section of the campus or simply diving the classrooms into two gender-specific sections with curtains or wooden boards. So much for modern thinking, I suppose.

Students across Afghanistan have started returning to university for the first time since the Taliban stormed to power, and in some cases females have been separated from their male peers by curtains or boards down the middle of the classroom.

What happens in universities and schools across the country is being closely watched by foreign powers, who want the Islamist militant movement to respect the rights of women in return for vital aid and diplomatic engagement.

When it last ruled from 1996-2001, the group banned girls from school and women from university and work.

The Taliban is still keenly aware that the world is watching (at least in the places where journalists with cameras are still allowed to operate) and they don’t want to do anything to endanger future cash payments and foreign aid. They previously promised that women’s rights “would be honored in accordance with Islamic law.” (They originally said “Sharia law” but that apparently didn’t poll very well.) We’re still not sure what that means, but for the moment at least, women haven’t been shoved back entirely into the roles they were assigned prior to 2001. So that’s better than nothing, right?

Perhaps, but there are a few other factors to keep in mind here. First of all, these reports only apply to the three largest cities and those are the places where you’re most likely to find journalists who are still able to do their jobs without too much interference (for now). So those are also the places where the Taliban is most likely to be on their best behavior and attempting to keep their fighters in line. The report specifically said that these schools that are allowing female students are found in “some places.” What’s going on in the smaller schools in the more remote provinces is unknown.

Even if this is the “new normal” for Afghanistan, this type of gender segregation immediately sets up a “separate but equal” system that will no doubt produce different outcomes for the boys and the girls. Further, this system only applies to the limited number of girls that are actually showing up for school. I somehow doubt that the child brides who have been collected and auctioned off to the Taliban fighters after they retook power are being allowed out of the house every day to go to class.

Some of the young women who managed to make it to the University in Kabul weren’t satisfied with the conditions. One young woman is quoted as saying, “I really felt terrible when I entered the class … We are gradually going back to 20 years ago.” That’s what it sounds like to me, though I’m not sure how “gradual” it will wind up being.

I’d love to be wrong about this, but it’s impossible for me to escape the sense that what we’re currently seeing is nothing more than theatrics being put on by the Taliban while they feel like the rest of the world is watching. Once they’ve soaked up all of the money and foreign aid that they can from other nations, it’s a safe bet that the cameras will be shut down and they’ll go back to their old ways. And those ways do not include allowing girls and women to receive an education or hold a job outside of the home. If America and the rest of the world continue to fall for the Taliban’s deceptions, we have no one to blame but ourselves.