Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Taliban regime denies access to education to Afghan girls and women

On September 27, 1996, a new and relatively unknown political and military force called the Taliban (which means “students of religion”) took control of the capital city of Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban imposed its own version of Islam to the people, and passed a series of edicts that would have a particular impact on the lives of girls and women.

Shortly after taking power, the Taliban announced that women would not be allowed outside the home without a permit, without male accompaniment and without being covered, head-to-toe, in the tent-like burqa. The windows of all homes were painted black to prevent passers-by from seeing the women inside. Women were prevented from working and from attending university and girls would not be permitted to attend school. All these rules were enforced with brutality by the Taliban’s Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The repression of rights for girls and women in Afghanistan did not begin with the arrival of the Taliban to power in Kabul in September 1996, nor did it end when the regime was effectively dismantled in 2001. But the five years of Taliban rule represent, particularly for girls and women, one of the darkest periods in the country’s complex and tumultuous history.

As Amnesty International reports indicate, human rights abuses were also prevalent in pre-Taliban Afghanistan. These abuses were particularly evident during the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989, and continued during the 1990s when the country suffered from years of civil unrest. But even during the Soviet occupation and the years of control by warring Islamic parties, girls and women in some parts of the country – though victimized in other ways -- continued to benefit from access to education.

During the first half of the 1990s, women made up 70 per cent of teachers in Afghanistan, 50 per cent of the civil service and 40 per cent of healthcare workers. In the months before the Taliban took full control, women made up half the student population at Kabul University and 60 per cent of the professoriate. This was a country that, despite 18 years of armed conflict as well as opposition by powerful conservative religious forces, had managed to secure some fundamental rights for women. Any hope of immediate further progress was decimated in that pivotal moment of September 1996.

Despite threat of beatings, rape, public amputations and hanging that occurred during the Taliban rule, the women of Afghanistan -and the supportive men in their lives- continued to resist. A network of underground schools developed. Cheryl Benard (2002) explains that these education efforts had to be kept secret, because any carelessness could jeopardize the safety of the children, the neighbours, the women attending literacy courses, and the the men who volunteered to accompany women. Indeed, any little indiscretion and a whole chain of people would be at risk. Dr. Sima Samar, who operated clandestine schools for girls under the Taliban regime, once responded to threats that she would be killed with the following words: “Go ahead and hang me in a public place. Then tell the people my crime: I was giving papers and pencils to the girls.” (quoted in Armstrong, 2002:xv).

One of the most organized efforts to provide education for girls and women carried out by  RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which created the slogan “Education is our weapon”. RAWA ran schools both in the refugee camps of Pakistan and, covertly, in Afghanistan. RAWA’s educational work was inextricably linked to the struggle for human rights in Afghanistan. Benard (2002:52) describes the development of consciousness through education she witnessed: “Women attended the literacy classes for the obvious reason: because they want to learn how to read…. Thoughts and questions that have long preoccupied them gradually begin to take form as they find themselves in the company of other intellectually curious women.”

If there is any silver lining to the five years of Taliban rule, it is in the backlash. The Taliban was never elected by the Afghan people and, instead, was largely viewed as “an invading force created and supported by Pakistani intelligence services and its Arab allies.” (Wali, 2002:9). After the Taliban regime was overthrown, many Afghan citizens have reacted against its interpretation of Islam with a more liberal and democratic perspective on the role of women in society, and this led to a renewed support for the education of girls and women.           


Amnesty International (November 1996). Grave abuses in the name of religion. 

Armstrong, Sally (2002). Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan. Toronto: Penguin, Viking.

Benard, Cheryl(2002). Veiled Courage: Instead the Afghan Women’s Resistance. New York: Broadway Books.

Emadi, Hafizullah (2002). Repression, Resistance, and Women in Afghanistan. Westport, Connecticut, London: Praeger Publishers.

Wali, Sima (2002). Afghanistan: Truth and Mythology. In Women for Afghan Women. ed. Sunita Mehta. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


Prepared by Deanne Fisher (OISE/UT, Fall 2003)

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