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The (Tali)Ban & ‘Pen Path’

Matiullah Wesa is a Kandahar-based social worker who is continuing with his struggle regarding Women’s Education. In life, he has experienced extreme forms of religious fundamentalism in Afghanistan, as the Taliban insurgents torched his community school in Kandahar’s Marouf District when Wesa was just nine. When his father ventured to re-open a school that had been closed down, the locals, fearing backlash from the Taliban, drove the family away from Kandahar. Young Wesa studied in Kabul, and also visited India to earn a degree in Human Rights. After returning to Afghanistan, he formed an organisation, named Pen Path, a community-based education support network in Afghanistan. With 2,400 volunteers, he has been working to get countless Afghan boys and girls into the classroom for over a decade. More than 70% of women are illiterate in the war-ravaged South Asian nation. Wesa is with his quest to change this scenario. He raised his voice when the Taliban banned women from universities in his country on December 20, 2022, condemning this aggression on the opposite sex.

The year 2023 has brought in some bad, as well as some good, pieces of news. It is hard to believe that an entire nation has closed its university doors to all its citizens, who are women. The top Taliban leadership in Kabul has defended the move, saying that education is an expensive affair, and the Afghan Government is currently in a cost-curtailing mode. This is nothing but a lame excuse. In fact, the Taliban leaders believe that Primary Education is enough for girls. Since their return to power on August 15, 2021, the Talibans have imposed a new dress code for women, apart from asking them not to go outside their residences without a male member of the family, not to visit parks or gyms, and to quit their jobs. It may be noted that the Afghan universities opened their doors to women in February 2022, with the conditions that the girls there would have to cover their entire bodies, enter through a special door, sit in a special classroom designated for girls only, and were required to study under a female or elderly teacher. The Afghan girls accepted all these conditions to continue with their studies. However, they received quite a shock on December 20, 2022.

Meanwhile, the year 2023 has also brought in some good news, and one of them is that the Afghan men have joined protests against the ongoing oppression of women in the Islamic World. For the past one and a half months, the people of Afghanistan have been witnessing a loud march of protest by the fearless men and women. The Anti-Hijab Movement, triggered by Mahsa Amini‘s death in neighbouring Iran in September 2022, has claimed the lives of many male protesters. One of them is Majidreza Rahnavard… before being executed by the Iranian authorities on December 12, 2022 for allegedly taking part in Anti-Hijab Protests, the 23-year-old Rahnavard reportedly said: “I don’t want anyone to mourn upon my grave. I don’t want them to recite the Quran or pray. Just celebrate and play celebrating music.” Rahnavard’s last wish has inspired men in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations to join protests, demanding Women’s Rights.

The men from Afghanistan have painted a similar picture on the canvas of anti-Taliban protests. When the female students took to the streets, demanding their Right to Education; their male classmates joined them. They are still boycotting the class, and taking part in protest marches with placards in Kabul, Kandahar, Nangarhār and other major cities. Muzamel, a male student, has said: “We will continue our boycott and if the female classes are not reopened, we will also boycott our lessons and will not continue education. Universities are closed for our sisters. We don’t want to go to university either.” A group of male medical students at Nangarhār University walked out of their exams on December 21, 2022 in protest against the Taliban’s ban on women getting a university education, calling on the Taliban to reverse their decision and allow women to return to university. Even a number of professors have joined the protests. The local media have reported that numerous lecturers at Kabul University, too, called out the Taliban to reconsider their decision, stressing that the closure of educational institutes was unfortunate. “We ask the Islamic Emirate to reopen universities for our sisters,” stated Tawfiqullah, a Lecturer.

Incidentally, Afghanistan had faced problems related to gender inequality or gender discrimination during the previous Taliban Regime in 1996-2001. However, the Afghans did not dare to stage protests against the Taliban at that period of time. This time, the Afghan women have realised that they would have to fight alongside men, in order to uproot patriarchy. May they remember this during protests, revolutions and extreme impasse. As the Talibans are the reality; so are Matiullah Wesa, Majidreza Rahnavard, Muzamel, Tawfiqullah and such others.

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