‘The Soul of Afghanistan Is Forever Changed:’ Afghan Girls’ Struggle for Education Is a Call to Action for the International Community Commentary
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‘The Soul of Afghanistan Is Forever Changed:’ Afghan Girls’ Struggle for Education Is a Call to Action for the International Community

On Feb. 11, much of the global community marked the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and Technology. But in Afghanistan, few felt like celebrating. After all, that day was the 874th since girls were banned from attending secondary school studies, and the 415th since universities shut their doors to women.

The urgency of this educational ban is underscored by recent calls from Amnesty International for the release of education activists Ahmad Fahim Azimi and Seddiqullah Afghan, who were unjustly detained on Oct. 17, 2023. A peculiar irony of the situation is the fact that these activists were detained for their alleged support of girls in STEM. And to add an extra layer of irony: These particular allegations are likely false.

The Afghan Girls Robotics Team (Team) is a remarkable group of some two dozen young roboticists who have defied societal norms and overcome numerous obstacles to achieve international recognition. Founded by Afghan software entrepreneur Roya Mahboob in 2017, the group faced a gauntlet of obstacles, from early difficulties in obtaining robotics parts, to highly publicized visa denials that would have stymied their ability to compete abroad.

But through it all, they have showcased their talents and determination on a global stage, collecting at least a dozen awards at international competitions between 2017 and 2023, including most recently the Courageous Achievement award at FIRST Global, Singapore. And international accolades aside, for many in Afghanistan, the team has come to symbolize what’s possible when women and girls are free to pursue STEM education. Their drive to succeed and overcome ultimately landed them the nickname the Afghan Dreamers.

In August 2021, as the Taliban secured its renewed grip on Afghan power, the Team fled the country with the help of a group of educational activists and Qatari government officials.

Douglas Chin, a California-based surgeon and human rights activist who has been working with the robotics team for years, played an integral role in orchestrating their evacuation. Chin is known for having vocally advocated for marginalized individuals and groups in Afghanistan, ultimately landing him an advisory role on Afghan affairs with the United Nations, as well as a producing role for a film about the Team.

In a recent interview, he explained to me why his work with the group was so important to him. “Having won multiple international competitions and awards in robotics, when the team returned to Afghanistan, they literally transformed the attitudes of Afghan society toward the expectations, roles, and rights of Afghan women and girls. Largely due to the impact of this all-girls team, in 2018, President [Ashraf] Ghani committed to building five STEM schools throughout Afghanistan. This is the legacy of the Afghan Dreamers. The legacy of these girls and other Afghan women before them is that Afghan women now understand the rights and opportunities that they are due,” he said.

Of course, much has changed in the country since 2018. The Taliban’s resurgence has stripped the prospects of women and girls wishing to receive an education, along with so many other rights.

“The soul of Afghanistan is forever changed. Regardless of how women may be arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and oppressed, it is now the expectation, the demand, and the right of Afghan women and girls to be educated. The Taliban are a harsh and brutal externality, but the fact is the soul of Afghanistan is forever changed,” Chin said.

It goes without saying that no one who helped these women escape thinks any related activities should be criminalized. But to take the misfortune of activists Azimi and Afghan a step further, the charges they assisted the roboticists in their escape — the charges that landed them in jail — are baseless, according to Chin.

“Allegations that Fahim and Sediq had assisted with the evacuation of the girls’ robotics team — or, interestingly, what the Taliban themselves describe as the team’s ‘escape’ from Afghanistan — are totally false. Neither Fahim nor Sediq had any role in the evacuation, relocation, or resettlement of the Afghan Dreamers. The Taliban had also asserted that they were involved in the organization of women’s protests. This accusation is also specious and categorically false,” he said.

Now that the Afghan Dreamers are safely out of the Taliban’s reach, he is shining a light on the plight of the activists.

“I have been in contact with UN OHCHR, the government of Qatar, and individuals in Afghanistan and can confirm Sediq and Fahim are being held at Pol-e Charkhi [prison] and are in fair condition physically, although one of them suffers from an important health condition and has not had access to adequate medical care,” he said.

The resurgence of Taliban rule in 2021 has brought with it a repressive regime that seeks to deny women and girls their right to education. Under the current regime, Afghan madrasas, traditional religious schools touted by the Taliban as an alternative means of education, serve as vehicles for indoctrination rather than empowerment, perpetuating extremist ideology and stifling intellectual freedom.

The international community cannot afford to remain silent in the face of such blatant violations of human rights. The arbitrary arrests of education activists like Azimi and Afghan underscore the urgent need for action.

I, along with my fellow education- and human-rights activists, call for their immediate release and demand that the international community challenge the Taliban’s decrees that restrict education for women and girls. The future of Afghanistan, and indeed the world, depends on ensuring that every girl has the opportunity to learn and thrive.

The plight of Afghan women and girls must serve as a rallying cry for all those who believe in the transformative power of education. Denying them this fundamental right not only perpetuates inequality but also threatens the future prosperity and stability of Afghanistan. It is incumbent upon the global community to stand in solidarity with Afghan women and girls, to advocate for their rights, and to ensure that their voices are heard. Only then can we truly uphold the principles of equality and justice for all.

The author, an Afghan legal scholar, has requested to remain anonymous due to acute security risks.


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