Girls Education, Globally, Is Important As “A Book Is A Greater Threat To Extremism”

There was no way to not look, again and again, at the photo in the newspaper. It begged to be seen, and not forgotten.

Schoolgirls sit inside a classroom with bouquets of flowers on empty desks as a tribute to those killed in the brutal May 8 bombing of the Syed Al-Shahda girls school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

It is a moment caught by a photojournalist we should ponder.

We have read about Afghanistan as a national headline maker since the dreadful attacks on 9/11, and the behavior of the Taliban with international news since they established themselves with such behavior as the explosion of the Bamiyan Buddhas. With the coming withdrawal of the American forces from that central Asian nation the concern deepens about what follows for the people who call it home. More to the point of this post, what about the girls who are trapped in a nation that defines the need for modernity?

The desire of parents and locals to have security is, of course, logical. I am not suggesting we stay with a military presence for a longer period, but the girls must not be forgotten, as they are the ones who too often carry the brunt of the madness.

On Sunday in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, parents of scores of young girls killed in a brutal May 8 bombing demonstrated to demand the government provide them with greater security. They said 90 people were killed, most of them students of Syed Al-Shahda girls school, in the bombings outside the school. No one took responsibility but the IS affiliate has declared war on the country’s minority Shiites.

This week in one of those must-reads Nicholas Kristof wrote about the powerful lesson these girls show the world.

In some hideous way, perhaps it was rational for fundamentalists to blow up the school, because girls’ education poses an existential threat to extremism. That’s why the Pakistani Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. It’s why the Afghan Taliban threw acid in girls’ faces.

In the long run, a girl with a book is a greater threat to extremism than a drone overhead.

“The way to long-term change is education,” said Sakena Yacoobi, a hero of mine who has devoted her life to educating her fellow Afghans. “A nation is not built on temporary jobs and mining rights, contractors and political favors. A nation is built on culture and shared history, shared reality and community well-being. We pass these down with education.”

Since 9/11, we Americans have sought to defeat terrorism and extremism with the military toolbox. As we pull our forces out of Kabul and Kandahar, this is a moment to reflect on the limits of military power and the reasons to invest in more cost-effective tools to change the world, like schooling.

Though Kristof has a belief the Taliban can be lulled into allowing for educating girls my reading of the Taliban, with the past decades as a map, shows that if there is that hope it remains mostly elusive. And that is a sad statement to make as history also shows that there is no reason whatsoever that religion and modernization must always be at loggerheads.

Today The New York Times mined down deeper into this issue and the article should register with us.

Taliban control notwithstanding, every month the districts’ teachers trudge to Sheberghan, the provincial capital, to collect their salaries, one of many anomalies in a country that is already under de facto control of two governments. Better to have to pay the teachers than close the schools. The city, dusty but bustling, is still in the hands of the central government, but like other provincial capitals it is an isolated island; the Taliban rule the roads, coming and going.

The provincial government still employs school chiefs for the captured districts. But local education officials must watch, helplessly, as Islamist insurgents front-load a heavy dose of religion into the curriculum, slash history instruction and keep the girls out.

The Taliban’s policy on education for girls can vary, slightly. Local commanders make the decisions, reflecting the decentralization of a movement scholars like Antonio Giustozzi have described as a “network of networks.” Human Rights Watch noted in a report last year that though the Taliban commanders often permit schooling for girls up to age 12, it is unusual for them to allow it for older girls. Though in some areas, “pressure from communities has persuaded commanders to allow greater access to education for girls,” the report said.

But not many. 

Where does this leave the world community as we watch regression toward the dark days of the Taliban regime as our forces deploy back home? What happens to female education when the Taliban, again, will likely ban any kind of education for girls and young women?

I offer the clue to the future from Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of the Taliban office in Qatar. “We are not against female education or work. But we have Islamic norms. This is still not the West.”

That sums up where we are. And it needs to concern the world community.