Edwin Naidu

Just before Christmas came the shocking news that the Taliban in Afghanistan had imposed a ban on women students studying at public and private universities in the landlocked Asian country.

With most of the world focused on festive celebrations, this ludicrous decision drew protests from the global organisations one would typically expect. Unfortunately, the Association of African Universities did not mention this disgraceful stance in its substantial end-of-year closing report.

There are challenges in higher education on the continent. But we are also part of the wider world and must add our voices to the debates.

Many other African, be they human rights or gender activists, opted to stay silent on the Afghan decision to suppress women. Perhaps, many believe it is a religious matter, and each country’s decisions should be respected. But why does it matter to you and me? African nations are signatories to the United Nation’s Sustainable Developmental Goals, a collection of 17 interlinked goals aimed at being a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet now and into the future”.

One of the goals is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. In a give-and-take world, to ensure redress or parity, much is happening to ensure that African women are given the tools to rise and claim their rightful place in society, whether in academia, boardrooms, political seats of power, etc.

And while we are seeing progress, there is a mountain to climb, especially if you consider the bias against women in higher education in the business. So when the Afghans make a decision that puts down women, effectively, the decision means that women, who make up half of the Afghan people, are banned from accessing education; this can only mean a bleak future, as it reinforces the patriarchal tendencies that keep women in subordination.

Article first published by Sunday Independent (South Africa) on 22/01/2023

When women and girls are denied an education anywhere in the world, we cannot turn a blind eye to it. The short-sighted decision by political dinosaurs not only affects women and girls in Afghanistan but also places doubt on the ability of the country to rely on all its resources and talents, both human and natural, to shape a better future.

The internet will tell you that Afghanistan’s economy is the world’s 96th-largest, one of the least developed countries ranking 180th in the Human Development Index, and fares much worse in terms of per-capita GDP (PPP), ranking 169th out of 186 countries as of 2018.

Such decisions will hold the nation back. If you consider that social media as the well-meaning, sometimes boastful, ad-nauseam celebration of African men and women rising, you would be mistaken to think that improving the plight of Africans is a mutually exclusive goal.

A better world is the pursuit of not just us as Africans. Addressing poverty and inequalities and tackling education, health, and welfare challenges are paramount. But the instant celebration of success on social media is not a reflection of the planet being anywhere near close to realising the 17 SDGs. Recent reports suggest that many nations will need more support if they are to get close to the targets.

Since its creation 70 years ago, the UN has had some success in advancing gender equality since the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women – the leading global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women – through the adoption of various landmark agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. There is a long way to go, as men still call the shots.

The aim is for a better planet for all. South Africa, as a beneficiary of Africa and the world’s hospitality, during the struggle against apartheid, knows this more than any other nation. There- fore, while the country struggles to keep the lights on or find its voice on the faltering Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was a breath of fresh air when the government stood up for the women being denied an education by the sexist and outdated Taliban regime.

The South African response was one of grave concern and endorsement of the United Nations Human Rights Experts; a statement that this action “is a flagrant violation of their human rights enshrined in multiple international treaties, to which Afghanistan is a signatory and will lead to disastrous consequences for Afghans.”

Saudi Arabia allowed global icon Cristiano Ronaldo and his girlfriend to move into their country without having to marry; Qatar, fresh from hosting the World Cup amid human rights abuse of workers, and Turkey condemned the Taliban.

However, the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education reportedly justified the ban by saying that women students were not dressing correctly and that the universities taught subjects to women inconsistent with Islamic law and Afghan culture.

This latest decision by the Taliban government to ban women from attending universities is a regrettable step backward for Afghan women and girls in their legitimate quest for their human rights in general and their rights to education in particular. The South African government believes that a system of government based on values such as human dignity, the rule of law (not rule by law), and respect for the fundamental human rights of all, including women and girls, creates an environment conducive to development and peace.

The South African government called on the Taliban leadership to rethink its decision, reverse the ban it imposed on 20 December 2022 and immediately open the doors of learning for women and girls at all universities in Afghanistan.

South Africa strongly condemned the targeting of women and their human rights globally, in particular, the attacks on women journalists; the use of force by authorities to impose laws on what women should wear, and the curbing of women’s rights to education represent a worrisome trend of attacks on women’s rights.

The global community must consistently uphold all human rights, including women’s. About 1 314 kilometers away from Afghanistan, in Iran, on 16 September 2022, Mahsa Amini, just 22, died in a hospital three days after her arrest for alleged violations of the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.

This led to the biggest protests in Iran in years. Young women and girls defiantly removed their Islamic headscarves, or hijabs, in stand-offs with the security forces that have left dozens dead, according to human rights groups.
One cannot envisage these protests going the same way as the women in the West 50 years ago when “bra-burning” became a fashionable statement. That’s not necessary. While it generated headlines, the fight for the emancipation of women has a long way to go. People should have freedom of choice to worship as they please – and dress according to personal tastes.

Increasingly, it is about the heart and mind of human beings, not what adorns one’s body. Of course, try telling that to the Taliban or dinosaurs who believe otherwise. But the message is clear if women and girls are to achieve gender equality and become empowered, Africans must speak up for the silenced and oppressed women in Afghanistan – and elsewhere, they are being suppressed.

Naidu is a journalist and heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African continent.

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