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Segregated Studies

Opening the doors for women intent on post-graduate studies is a seemingly reassuring development.


For all the talk of a moderate government after decades of repression, segregation will be the hallmark of the search for learning in Afghanistan, if Sunday’s presentation of the scheme of things by the country’s higher education minister, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, is any indication. Indeed, the recent state-sponsored assault on women demonstrators in Kabul was an indication of the shape of things to come. And so it may. Visuals suggest that a curtain shall separate the men from women in the classroom. Women students will be allowed to study in universities, but the Islamic dress and code will be mandatory, verily concordant with the certitudes of a theocratic state. Opening the doors for women intent on post-graduate studies is a seemingly reassuring development. Having said that, the clock has indubitably been turned back notwithstanding the fact that another theocratic state, Saudi Arabia, inducted women to the Majlis-e-Shura (governing council), albeit with a curtain separating the genders, and granted women the permission to drive. Mr Haqqani’s assurance that the new Taliban government will “start building the country on what exists today” and the pledge not to turn the clock back back 20 years, when the movement was last in power, cannot readily inspire optimism. A striking feature of the embattled government’s new education policy envisages that female students will be taught by women and classrooms will remain separated and concordant with the Taliban’s interpretation of the Islamic sharia. “Thanks to God, we have a high number of women teachers, and we will not face any problems in this. All efforts will be made to find and provide women teachers for female students,” the education minister told the media. “When there is really a need, men can also teach women, but in accord with the sharia.” The matrix is, therefore, conditional at best and in the 21st century unquestionably retrograde. It is hard not to wonder whether decidedly greater emphasis will be accorded to the gender construct rather than the academic attainments of the teacher. It is fervently to be hoped that Afghanistan will strive for academic excellence, which is imperative for a born-again nation. Mr Haqqani has unveiled the plan several days after the country’s new rulers formed an all-male government. The regimentation will also impact matters sartorial. While the hijab or religious veil will be mandatory for all female students, the minister did not specify if this meant headscarves or compulsory face coverings. The world has been watching closely to see to what extent the Taliban have changed attitudes since the first time they were in power in the late 1990s. But will the difference be substantive? For now, it seems education will be allowed… with a considerably modified ‘yes’.