Reconstruction in Post-Taliban Afghanistan: Women and Education

By Alvi, Hayat | Resources for Feminist Research, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Reconstruction in Post-Taliban Afghanistan: Women and Education

Alvi, Hayat, Resources for Feminist Research

This paper examines the postwar needs and priorities of women and the reconstruction of the ruined education system in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The country's reconstruction and short- and long-term development profoundly depend on the ability to establish and secure secular educational institutions. Should Afghanistan's reconstruction fail to address women's empowerment through the education system, there could be a serious risk of repeating the tragically destructive modern history of the region.


The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggered and intensified a fierce ideological competition among the various Afghan Mujaheddin(1) groups. In response to the Soviet occupation, there evolved a local brand of Islamic fundamentalism fueled by the Mujaheddin's zeal for fighting a jihad(2) to defeat and expel the communist Soviets. Accordingly, the treatment of women, and attitudes towards secular education, became dramatically modified. The once relatively liberal attitudes of the Afghan population towards the status and role of women, and towards secular education, shifted in the direction of an ultra-conservative framework based on a combination of indigenous tribal codes, Islamic law (shari'ah), and two main imported, highly orthodox Islamic ideologies: Wahhabism(3) from Saudi Arabia, and Deobandism(4) from India. This new shift spelled disaster for Afghan girls and women, and for the Afghan education system.

The coming to power of the Taliban regime in 1996 sunk the Afghan education system to a new low, unlike anything seen elsewhere in the modern world, wherein girls were prohibited from attending schools, and female teachers forced home. The result was devastating for both boys and girls, since most teachers were women. Those who dared set up secret home schools risked bodily harm and possibly even death if discovered. The very few intellectuals remaining in Afghanistan fled quickly, wholly repelled by the Taliban's ignorance and violence. Under the Taliban regime, intellectualism was totally suppressed to the point of nonexistence. Reportedly, the Taliban even shot stacks of books with their guns. They purportedly showed particular hostility towards books on gynecology and obstetrics.

Now that the Taliban have been removed from power by the US-led coalition, some immediate problems can already be identified. First, the formation of the interim government led by President Hamid Karzai is deeply flawed, mainly because the various warlords (i.e., former Mujaheddin commanders now referred to as the "Northern Alliance," or NA) have been allowed to share power. This is because the US, instead of disarming and arresting these warlords for war crimes, decided to use the NA in the battle against the Taliban, and in order to use them, incentives had to be given. Power-sharing in the post-Taliban interim government served as a major incentive for NA commanders to cooperate with the US and its allies. The NA is notorious for perpetrating massacres and raping women. Having these criminals in positions of power poses serious security risks for the future of Afghanistan, and there is already evidence of this with reports of threats against President Karzai and rifts between him and other officials intensifying. Larry Goodson, a scholar on Afghanistan, reiterates that the use of the NA proxy forces allowed the return of warlords in a lecture on US foreign policy in November 2002.(5)

Second, postwar reconstruction projects require substantial funding, especially for rebuilding the most basic structures and institutions, like roads and bridges, utilities, buildings and homes, hospitals and clinics, schools, agriculture, industries, and banks and businesses. Once the Taliban had been removed from power, numerous countries, institutions, and organizations pledged millions of dollars to rebuild Afghanistan. However, the legacy of 23 years of destruction requires billions of dollars for reconstruction, which the US alone could afford.

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