Ignore the media: don’t believe the Taliban have changed

The Taliban are not softening on girls’ education, as some media have reported says Lauryn Oates, a Canadian aid worker and women right’s activist in Afganistan.
Lauryn Oates
On Jan. 14, the U.K.’s Times Educational Supplement ran a story titled “Taliban backs girls’ education,” elatedly announcing the Taliban had a change of heart with regards to their long-standing ban on girls’ education.

However, in the story itself, it turns out the announcement came not from the Taliban leadership but rather from their sworn enemies: the Afghan government. The only person quoted in the story was Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak, who reported, “What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls’ education.”

No confirmation from Taliban

No confirmation from the Taliban itself was provided in the story, or since.

The same day, the BBC picked up the story, using the headline, “Afghan Taliban ‘end’ opposition to educating girls,” while their counterparts at The Telegraph ran a story headlined “Taliban ‘abandons’ opposition to girls’ education.”

The story quickly spread from the U.K. to around the world.

This is strange journalism to say the least. There is scant evidence besides Wardak’s speculations that the Taliban have any notion of giving up the ban. More than half of the schools in some provinces are closed, mainly due to insecurity, such as in the southern province of Helmand, where 150 out of 282 schools remain closed.

Here in Kabul, I continue to hear regularly of attacks against schools, the poisoning of girls’ schools, arson of schools and threats to educators, sometimes carried out, resulting in murdered teachers and terrified students and parents.

Afghanistan has made tremendous progress in the field of education, with the enrolment of some 7 million students, nearly 40 per cent of them girls. Yet millions more school-aged children, the majority of them girls, are not in school. The insurgency, including the Taliban’s overt targeting of girls’ schools, is one of the major culprits blocking further progress. This is the real news story, rather than a poorly sourced claim that the Taliban have been suddenly enlightened.

Taliban business as usual

What makes this statement from Wardak even less of a news story is the fact the Taliban have long been inconsistent in their imposition of the ban, as Afghanistan analyst Una Moore pointed out in a recent article that cautions against taking Wardak’s statements too seriously:

“It’s not at all clear what acceptance means in this context. Acceptance of education for teenage girls and adult women? Acceptance of women in co-educational universities? Would the Taliban accept the presence of girls in schools that operate in gender-segregated shifts? What about schools that segregate classrooms, but allow boys and girls to attend at the same time?”

Moore is alluding to when the Taliban were in power and made the occasional exception to girls’ schooling, but always with a dizzying array of caveats, such as restricting instruction to religious subjects or denying girls from continuing schooling past puberty.

What this effectively amounted to was a tiny fraction of girls accessing what barely qualified as an education. The current situation differs little when, for example, once in a while, the odd Taliban commander breaks ranks and allows some minimal (and heavily religious) schooling in a madrassah in an area under Taliban control. It’s frankly nothing to get too excited about.

‘Most do not favour reconciliation with Taliban’

Despite this un-newsy story, almost immediately many of those who oppose NATO’s presence in Afghanistan and Canada’s participation were quick to circulate the dubious “news.”

There was almost a celebratory mood: finally, we have permission to like the Taliban. You see, they’re not so bad after all.

It begs some serious scrutiny of our commitment to the future of the Afghan people when so many in the West are so keen to jump up and down in response to a vague report of a Taliban policy change, in search of any excuse to disengage from the country.

Meanwhile, many ordinary Afghans remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea of reconciling with the likes of the Taliban. The Karzai government advocates talking to the Taliban, but this is far from the will of the Afghan people, who have lived amid the violence and intolerance of their former governors, and are far less naive than those in the West about their destructive intentions. The populist and intrepid Afghan member of Parliament, Fawzia Koofi, told me that she believes the Taliban are even more extremist today than they were in 2001.

She added, “Most of the people do not favour reconciliation with the Taliban. You have a snake half killed. And when it finds you, anywhere, it will bite you even harder than before.”

Education a dangerous ‘right’ in Afghanistan

Recently I watched dozens of girls fixate on their teacher in a dilapidated mud building that serves as a school in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of north Kabul. Clutching their notebooks, they furiously recorded what the teacher lectured. There were no desks, chairs or central heating as the grey, frigid winter prevails over Kabul. But there is nowhere else in the world they would rather be.

Their parents are poor, and school, even one like this, is a hard-earned luxury.

Education is a right that has not come easily for these kids. We shouldn’t be so quick to bid it away, leaping enthusiastically at a far-fetched rumour that the Taliban promise to be a little less demonic toward little girls who would do anything to be in a classroom.

Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan and has been advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan since 1996. She’s a founding member of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and projects director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. She wrote this piece for distribution by Troy Media, and was also published by The Tyee.