The Taliban’s Female University Ban Is Not Surprising

The Taliban has banned women in Afghanistan from accessing higher education. Women who turned up to university on 21 December were turned away. They will not be allowed back, the Taliban’s education ministry says.   

Astonishingly, some of the world has reacted to this with surprise. Upset is justified – disgust certainly is. But surprise? That’s not even a little merited. These are the Taliban, after all. We have known precisely who they are and what they want for almost 30 years.  

They have been back in power for just over a year. In that time they have done much. They have banned teenage girls from school; banned women from visiting funfairs, gyms and sporting events. They have slowly closed a noose around the necks of the country’s female population.   

All of this was planned long in advance, announced in public, and promised upon their return to power. When the Taliban last governed, before their removal in 2001, they refused to allow women to receive educations.   

In late 2020, as the deal to surrender Afghanistan to them was being hashed out in Doha, Taliban media said the following: what they meant by an “Islamic system” was neither “vague nor abstract”. They meant what they always meant. “Some two decades ago the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan practically showcased that an Islamic system is in fact compatible with modern times.” 

Diplomats and politicians are often obtuse. But their expensive educations almost certainly equipped them to read between those lines.   

A Taliban commander interviewed by NPR in early 2021 said it even more clearly. “When we arrive in Kabul, we will arrive as conquerors,” he said. Women will “cover their faces. They’ll be segregated. We won’t have democracy. We’ll have an Islamic regime.” The only lie was his workshopped statement that “women will be able to study and work and move freely”. 

In Afghanistan, many young women and men have demonstrated against this diktat. They put themselves at risk of abduction and murder when they do so.  

Western leaders have instead issued a mass boilerplate statement. Britain’s Prime Minister tweeted his unhappiness “as a father to daughters” – a formulation so inadequate it had long ago become a self-discrediting cliché. “The world is watching,” Rishi Sunak concluded. Which is not only meaningless posturing; it’s barely true. 

We’re approaching 500 days since teenage girls were banned from Afghan schools. Very few in the West now fly their flag. University-age women will join them in obscurity soon enough.  

Sunak might be excused. He has a bean-counter’s soul. He knows little about foreign affairs and that he does not know, he does not care to learn.   

But America’s president, Joe Biden, (whose fault all of this is) claims to have wide expertise and knowledge of the world. Emmanuel Macron pretends that his quixotic foreign policy vision is sophisticated and even glorious. 

And yet both will watch this happen and let it pass with meaningless statements of surprise. 

This piece was originally published in the New Statesman.


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