The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The world must demand the Taliban stop restricting girls’ education

A girl walks back from school through an alleyway near her home in Kabul on Oct. 20, 2021. (Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS)
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Melanne Verveer is the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and served as the U.S. ambassador for Global Women’s Issues from 2009 to 2013. Roya Rahmani is a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2018 to 2021.

Just hours after reopening girls’ high schools in Afghanistan for the first time in nearly seven months, the Taliban ordered them shut, sparking plenty of heartbreak and outrage, but no substantive policy or political repercussions. That must change.

At a United Nations pledging conference for Afghanistan on Thursday, leaders lined up to reiterate their condemnations, but fell well short of establishing a red line: a date by which the Taliban must reopen girls’ middle and high schools and ensure every Afghan girl can receive the education she deserves.

These must be preconditions for the international community’s continued engagement with the Taliban — and they cannot be allowed to use girls’ education as a bargaining chip. Repercussions for the Taliban’s decision should be swift and strong, but Afghan citizens must not be the victims. The United States should use its leverage with governments in the region to sanction Taliban leaders’ international travel and restrict access to the Taliban’s financial assets.

The United States and countries in the region should further incorporate girls’ education, women’s employment and the basic human rights of Afghan women into their diplomatic and economic negotiations with the Taliban. Afghanistan’s neighbors should warn the Taliban that these issues are critical if it wants to be recognized as a peer in the region.

The international legitimacy the Taliban so desperately seeks is severely undermined by its decision to restrict girls’ education, which breaches obligations to which Afghanistan is a state party, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

With the grave humanitarian crisis understandably dominating the conversation at Thursday’s pledging conference, world leaders should look for other opportunities to explore financial support for alternative educational models that would allow Afghan girls to receive an education in ways the Taliban cannot control, or stop and start as it pleases.

Excluding any girls from education should be fundamentally unacceptable. Afghan girls deserve the same rights and opportunities as Afghan boys, and their exclusion should be an immutable red line for the international community. By breaking its commitment to Afghan girls, the Taliban is sending a message that it has not evolved over the past two decades like it claims.

This admission alone should send a shiver through the spines of world leaders fearful of Afghanistan turning into a cradle of terrorism. Persuading the Taliban to reverse its decision is essential to regional and international security because girls’ education is not only about literacy and professional skills, but also about mobility, tolerance, conflict resolution and basic human rights — the nucleus of a peaceful society — and preventing the normalization of extremism and terrorism.

Finally, the leaders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia and other predominantly Muslim countries should defend girls’ education and reject the Taliban’s invocation of Islam to justify closing girls’ schools.

In the Muslim faith, education is a divine command for both men and women. All the sacred sources of Islamic teaching — the Koran, the Hadith and the Sunnah — leave no doubt that women, like men, are obligated to increase their knowledge and pursue it. The education of girls and women is a requirement of the masalih mursalah, or the pursuit of public good, because educating girls has important benefits to their families, communities and the entirety of the Muslim community around the world — the ummah.

Other predominantly Muslim countries prioritize girls’ education. In Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Libya, more girls are in secondary school than boys. Girls in Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia have very high literacy rates, and women in many Middle Eastern and North African nations are graduating with university degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) often at higher rates than their U.S. and European counterparts.

There is no excuse for the Taliban’s move against girls’ education, and while world leaders may not have as much leverage as they’d like, they certainly have enough to get these girls back in the classroom.