Taliban authorities detain professor for opposing ban on women’s education

Despite facing threats to his life, professor Ismail Mashal has stood defiantly against the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s education in the country

February 07, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Ismail Mashal Afghanistan
Professor Ismail Mashal, wearing a red muffler standing in front of a tree-like cart, offers different books to local students of Kabul. (Photo: Aman Riazat/Twitter)

On Friday, February 3, Taliban authorities arrested professor Ismail Mashal, who rose to prominence after he tore up his degrees during a live telecast show on Tolo News in protest against the ban on women’s education in Afghanistan in December.

The 37-year-old professor, who ran a private university in Kabul, has stood defiantly against the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s education despite threats to his life. “The only power I have is my pen, even if they will kill me, even if they will tear me into pieces, I won’t stay silent now,” Mashal had told reporters after the ban was implemented. When he destroyed his degrees on television he had also said “if my mother and sister can’t study then I don’t accept this education.” 

Mashal was handing out free books to passers-by from a decorated cart when he was detained by Taliban security officials. According to Abdul Haq Hammad, director at the Ministry for Information and Culture, he was detained due to his alleged involvement in “provocation actions” and creating “chaos” against the system. 

Eyewitnesses, however, have confirmed to BBC that he was “slapped, punched, and kicked” during his arrest. His aide Farid Fazli told AFP news agency that the academic was “mercilessly beaten” before being taken away.

Banning women’s education

In December, the Taliban announced that women will no longer be allowed to study in higher educational institutions in the country, and that it is a violation of the norms of Afghan culture. 

This announcement immediately led to widespread international condemnation, with male students protesting in solidarity with women across the country. Scores of women took to the streets. Female protesters were beaten by security personnel, and some were subsequently arrested for “defying the laws” and staging protests against the ban on women attending universities.

The additional restrictions imposed on women, in the form of a national dress code for women, have only amplified the problem, amid a widespread poverty and healthcare crisis. 

Crisis ahead

Multiple international NGOs that had employed female staff in the country have been forced to stop their aid operations due to the Taliban’s diktat on female workers. United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths warned that this will prove “catastrophic” and a “potential death blow” to many important humanitarian programs in Afghanistan. 

The UN has made attempts to engage with Taliban leaders to discuss the reversal of these restrictions imposed on women and girls in the country, especially with regard to women’s education. 

On January 20, a high-level UN delegation led by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed asked the Taliban authorities to reverse their decrees for the sake of peace and sustainable development. 

“My message was very clear: while we recognize the important exemptions made, these restrictions present Afghan women and girls with a future that confines them in their own homes, violating their rights and depriving the communities of their services,” Mohammed stated.

The Taliban’s education policy remains a pressing issue, even as the country remains engulfed in a critical humanitarian crisis, including high levels of food and nutrition insecurity among women.

“What is happening in Afghanistan is a grave women’s rights crisis and a wakeup call for the international community. It shows how quickly decades of progress on women’s rights can be reversed in a matter of days,” Executive Director of UN Women, Sima Bahous, who was on a four-day visit to Afghanistan to appraise the situation, said.

Around 97% of the Afghan population is now estimated to be living in poverty, up from 72% in 2018. Over 28 million Afghans depend on humanitarian aid for their survival.

This winter has already proved deadly for thousands of families who are struggling in penury. At least 150 people have lost their lives due to extreme cold and over 70,000 livestock have perished after mercury dropped to minus 33 degrees Celsius in several provinces in Afghanistan.