The Irish Times view on women’s education in Afghanistan: rolling back rights

There can be no question of recognising the Taliban administration unless the situation for women improves

After its takeover of Afghanistan last August, the Taliban promised that women's rights would be protected "within the framework of Islamic law". As recently as last month, Unicef said the Taliban was showing "commitment" to allowing Afghan girls go to school across the country. Yet while the Taliban 2.0 has proven itself more media-savvy and more eager to please western audiences than its forerunner, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the evidence suggests it has every intention of curtailing the rights that women gained in the two decades since it last held power. Across the country, women's lives are being circumscribed. With the exceptions of healthcare workers and teachers, female public-sector employees have been dismissed or told to stay at home.

There is every reason to believe such moves are steps towards a reimposition of the strict segregation of the late 1990s, when women were under de facto house arrest and allowed to leave home only when escorted by male relatives.

It is of particular concern that, this week, the Taliban backtracked on its announcement that, after months of restrictions, secondary schools would open for girls. Female pupils showing up for school in the capital Kabul yesterday were ordered to go home. A Ministry of Education notice said schools for girls would be closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture. Many naturally fear that is merely cover for keeping girls at home.

Afghanistan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The UN projects this year that over one million children will need treatment for malnutrition and up to 97 per cent of Afghans could be living below the poverty line. As a result, there is little will in the West to attach conditions to its aid. Yet there can be no question of recognising the Taliban administration unless the situation for women improves. Women’s access to education and work was one of the real achievements of the past 20 years in Afghanistan. Those freedoms were hard won. Any attempt to roll them back must be forcefully resisted.