The education of the exiled

April 27, 2001

Afghan women plan to defy the Taliban ban by setting up their own university in Pakistan. Bernard Leeman reports.

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has launched a challenge to the warring factions in its devastated homeland. Convinced that neither the Taliban nor the Northern Alliance is willing to guarantee or is capable of guaranteeing a worthwhile future, the association has decided to establish its own university and medical school in Pakistan, where 3.2 million Afghan refugees are sheltering.

The decision to commit itself to a long-term strategy of educating exiles reflects the deteriorating socioeconomic and ideological situation in Afghanistan. After 11 years of violent resistance to Soviet occupation and local communist rule, the victorious Mujahidin fell on each other as soon as they captured Kabul.

The successful rise of the Taliban as a reaction to Mujahidin chaos and corruption has, however, entrenched even more deeply the ultra-conservative Ulema (religious scholars, whose policies the Taliban execute), who are responible for the most draconian living conditions for women anywhere on the planet.

The recent destruction of the giant Buddha statues has been interpreted by observers partially as a reprimand by the Ulema to wavering elements in the Taliban advocating a more tolerant gender policy.

In a recent interview with the Qatar-based Egyptian theologian Yusuf al Qaradawi, a Taliban spokesman declared that his movement had nothing against educating women but, with severely limited resources, it was better to educate boys because girls got married, stayed at home and therefore wasted their education.

In Karachi, to the south of the Afghan refugee camps, the Aga Khan University is testament to a deeper insight. The grandfather of the present Aga Khan believed that if you educate a man, you educate an individual but if you educate a woman, you educate an entire family. The contrast between the consequences of these conflicting outlooks is tragic.

The AKU accepts students for courses that include education, medicine and nursing, irrespective of background or gender. Muslim girls educated in Aga Khan institutions have for years become successful career women in all parts of the world. Conversely, girls in Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, are victims of a systematic, mean-spirited, ideologically inspired cruelty.

Afghanistan's political polarisation led to Soviet intervention and civil war that has created a violent gun culture and a criminal economy based on illegal trade in gemstones and opium.

The Ulema, heavily influenced by the teachings inherited from the Pakistani nationalist Abdul Ala Maududi, believes that the uncompromising implementation of its interpretation of sharia will usher in a perfect Islamic state purged of all western and socialist influences.

In accordance with this vision, the Ulema, through its Taliban enforcers, has decreed that no female be educated beyond the age of 12, nor employed as anything more than a Taliban police agent. The few who receive an education study the Koran and selected parts of sharia by rote.

While the Taliban is very much a product of the numerous religious schools in exile financed by conservative Arabic states to combat both Soviet and Iranian Shi'ite influence, the millions of girls and women in exile have depended too much on their own resources to accept uncritically either the Taliban's policies or the Northern Alliance's murderous ineptitude.

Before the Taliban made foreign and international agencies' reconstruction difficult or impossible, several international organisations had accomplished valuable work in education, healthcare, village engineering, agriculture and mine clearance in Afghanistan and refugee relief outside. Afghan exiles are diverse and scattered worldwide.

Ideally, the new university would serve as a coordinating body for Afghan expertise as well as a training centre offering, initially, courses in healthcare and education, and later medicine, business, administration, information technology, rural development and other disciplines.

The first step is relatively simple. Through countries that permit the operation of online universities, courses in, say, the theory and practice of childhood education and women's healthcare, albeit for a small number of students, could be up and running very quickly. They could be administered and tutored by a handful of sympathetic, unpaid international academics.

During the anti-apartheid era, more than 100 academics responded to a small advertisement in a British newspaper asking for support for the establishment of a university in Zimbabwe for refugees exiled from South Africa. Although the project was quashed by the Mugabe government, it was clear that its structure was too small and disorganised to deal with the flood of academic goodwill.

The Afghan women's association does not intend to make such a mistake. It can attract international backing and build on its existing fundraising structure if it can launch the first part of its university programme relatively unaided and can demonstrate a detailed development plan that provides for rapid expansion.

Its eventual success depends very much on whether there is a general acceptance in philanthropic and idealistic circles that Afghanistan is at a defining moment in its struggle for women's empowerment. If the scheme catches popular imagination, there is no reason why a medical school should not be established soon.

Bernard Leeman is assistant professor of history at Al Akhawayn University, Morocco.

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