Kinder, gentler Taliban: All girls, women back to school "soon"

AP Photo/Zabi Karimi

With all of the other drama playing out between Russia, China and everywhere else, the media’s focus has once again largely shifted away from the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan. In addition to famine sweeping large parts of the country and western citizens and Afghan helpers still being trapped there, the women’s rights situation in the country has continued to deteriorate under the rule of the Taliban. Families are selling off their daughters just to survive, but even the girls who manage to remain with their families are largely not back to school. Despite the promises that the incoming terrorist government made, few girls are receiving an education past the seventh grade. A Taliban spokesperson talked to the Associated Press this weekend and said that his government was vowing to do better and they were aiming to have all girls and women back to school by some time in March, shortly after the Afghan New Year which begins on the Spring solstice.

Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers say they hope to be able to open all schools for girls across the country after late March, their spokesman told The Associated Press on Saturday, offering the first timeline for addressing a key demand of the international community.

Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, girls in most of Afghanistan have not been allowed back to school beyond grade 7. The international community, reluctant to formally recognize a Taliban-run administration, is wary they could impose similar harsh measures as during their previous rule 20 years ago. At the time, women were banned from education, work and public life.

Zabihullah Mujahid, who is also the Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and information, said their education departments are looking to open classrooms for all girls and women following the Afghan New Year, which starts on March 21.

The Taliban spokesman said that education for girls and women is “a question of capacity.” That’s because the rules for how girls can attend classes have gotten harsher, not more lenient. In the early days after the fall of Kabul, western journalists were shown pictures of schools with drapes separating classrooms into two sections, one for boys and one for girls. Later, students were divided up by gender into totally different classrooms. But now Mujahid is insisting that there must be entirely separate school buildings, with no mixing of the genders. This means they need to build or reassign nearly twice the number of buildings that were in use under the previous government.

Mujahid told reporters that the Taliban is “not against education,” and that they want to see all girls and women receive an education. But he insists that there simply aren’t enough buildings available and ready to be used as schools. Even if they do follow through and get all of the girls back into classrooms, we should be asking what sort of education they will be receiving. Outsiders are not allowed into the classrooms, including reporters, so there is no way to tell. Will they be taking the same classes as the boys or will they be taught how to be subservient slaves to men and not show their faces in public?

This press briefing wasn’t solely focused on education and it appears that the schools only came up for discussion because reporters asked about it. What Mujahid really wanted to stress was the need for more “international cooperation and diplomatic development.” That’s the coded language that the Taliban has consistently used when saying that they want more countries to pour money into the Taliban’s coffers and for the previous government’s international assets to be unfrozen and given to them.

The Taliban are also continuing to push for international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, something that has been generally denied thus far, except by Russia and China. While this still sounds like a terrible idea, there seems to be a growing sense among some at the United Nations that it’s unavoidable. One UN spokesperson previously said that they were still waiting and judging the Taliban “by their deeds and not their words,” but they would likely have to be recognized sooner or later. The former government has completely disbursed and there is no feasible path to put them back in power.

So when we consider the Taliban’s need for more cash and their desire for legitimacy in the eyes of the world, should we really be surprised if they are only talking a good game when it comes to women’s rights and educational opportunities? Once they get what they want, there is little reason to doubt that they will continue treating women more like livestock than human beings. I’d love to be wrong about this, but if we just close our eyes to the Taliban’s history, we’ll simply be fooled again.