Driven by a broadly maligned interpretation of Islamic law, the Taliban has waged a violent campaign against girls’ education.
Driven by the belief that education is a human right — and the more broadly accepted view across the Muslim world that contrary to Taliban beliefs, women and girls are obligated to receive an education — advocates have risked everything to resist the ban.
These two statements are as true today across Afghanistan as they were in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2012 when 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai was viciously attacked while returning home from school one day.
In the years that have since passed, Malala has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, graduated from Oxford University, and ceaselessly advocated for girls’ education vis-à-vis the Malala Fund, a global organization she co-founded with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. A longtime advocate for equal rights to education, Ziauddin had run a girls’ school in the Swat Valley despite the continued escalation of TPP violence. And the ideals that propelled him through these threats have only grown stronger in the years since his daughter’s attack — particularly as history has repeated itself across Afghanistan since the Taliban regime’s 2021 resurgence.
JURIST* spoke with Ziauddin to learn more about his background as an activist, his views on the Afghan Taliban’s crackdown on girls’ education, and his hopes that the Muslim world will help convince the regime that their views on education are un-Islamic. This is Part One of a two-part interview. Part Two can be found here.
*This interview was conducted in two parts by JURIST Editorial Director Ingrid Burke Friedman and an unnamed Afghan legal scholar. Despite the latter having spearheaded the interview, she has been forced to remain anonymous and curtail her work on this story due to concerns for her safety. An educated woman has been stifled from documenting the crackdown on girls’ education in her own country due to fear of reprisal and harm from the Taliban regime. The education that once empowered her to advocate for the rights of her country’s women and girls now exposes her to persecution. She has been silenced by the very societal risks we grapple with in this story. We hope this context will illustrate what’s at stake as Afghanistan continues to silence and alienate its women and girls.
JURIST: Please tell our readers a bit about yourself and your background.
Ziauddin Yousafzai: My name is Ziauddin Yousafzai. I’m also known as Malala’s father and I’m so proud of that.
I was born in a small village in the northwest of Pakistan, in the Shangla district of the Swat Valley. I grew up with five sisters and a brother. As a child, I could see two different versions of parenting under the same roof — one for the girls and one for the boys.
My brother and I were special because we were boys. We had better food, better clothes, more shoes — all because of our gender. And my five sisters did not have the same privileges. The worst discrimination that my five sisters experienced was their deprivation of education. While I was pursuing my dreams in a classroom, none of my five sisters were able to go to school. I don’t just blame my parents for that; patriarchal societies have patriarchal governments. There were many schools for boys, and hardly any for girls. My parents had a lot of dreams for their boys, but hardly any for their five daughters. For them, my parents only dreamed they would get married as early as possible.
As a child, I did not realize that I enjoyed special treatment just for being a son. But after getting my education, I realized that what was going on in my family, in society more broadly, was wrong. And I realized that this inequality was not only harming girls; it was harming our society, our economy, our happiness. So, education changed me. It changed my inner being. It made my inner being more beautiful. It gave me values. That was the reason I became a staunch believer in education. It was this passion that drove me to become a teacher.
JURIST: What inspired your activism?
Yousafzai: I would say that I have always been an activist. But [my activism became more pronounced] when in 2007, 2008, the Taliban banned girls’ education in Swat Valley, and they bombed more than 400 schools. It was around this time that I began to speak out about the rights of girls to receive an education. And in our family, like father, like daughter. As I spoke out against and stood up to the injustices of the Taliban, Malala also started speaking out for her right to an education. She was barely 10 or 11 years old when the Taliban banned girls’ education, and she kept a diary [about how the ban affected her]. She began gaining international media attention and used every platform she could to advocate for girls’ education. She became very famous not only in Swat, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but throughout the country, for speaking up for her right to an education.
My activism has taken various forms. I began advocating for and teaching girls in 2007 in response to the ban, and then after Malala was attacked on Oct. 9, 2012, we had to move from Pakistan to the UK for her treatment. It was there that we founded the Malala fund to advocate for girls’ education around the world. So in the nearly two decades that we have been committed to activism, our focus has shifted from the 50,000 girls who were affected by the Taliban’s education ban, to some 130 million girls around the world who are unable to attend school.
Provided to JURIST.
We have learned a lot through our organization, and it has given us tremendous hope as we’ve worked around the globe, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Brazil, with Syrian refugees, in Turkey, Lebanon, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Ethiopia … But it’s not all hopeful. In Afghanistan today, nearly five million girls lack access to secondary and university education. We’d had a presence in Afghanistan since 2017, and had invested nearly $3 million there before Kabul fell to the Taliban.
JURIST: Tell us more about your thoughts on the impact of the Afghan Taliban’s education ban.
Yousafzai: I strongly believe that women in Afghanistan are facing and suffering through a gender apartheid. They’re experiencing the worst kind of gender apartheid in human history — especially in the 21st century. And this is not only my opinion; the UN Secretary General and many other human rights activists use the term “gender apartheid” to describe what is happening to Afghanistan’s women and girls.
And if you look at the history of the Taliban from the 1990s, as well as their recent history since August 2021, it is obvious that they don’t consider women to be equal citizens, equal human beings. They [see them as] lesser beings. That is why when they took control of Kabul and became the rulers of Afghanistan in August 2021, the first thing they did was wind down the work of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replace it with the so-called Ministry of Vice and Virtue, the function of which has been to violate women’s rights — to ban them from every happiness and every basic human right.
First they banned women from work. Then they stopped girls from going to secondary schools. Then they banned women from going to universities. And after the ban on university education, there were reports that in some provinces they have even stopped girls from going to primary school.
Provided to JURIST.
They are gradually eliminating ‘ education from the country. And the ultimate goal is the complete invisibility of women and girls in Afghanistan’s public life. Nine or 10 years from now, you won’t see any women working in the medical sector, the educational sector, the agricultural sector — in any sector.
Women are systematically deprived of their basic human rights and they are dehumanized. This mass dehumanization of women is gender apartheid, nothing else. … Women are deprived of any educational access, freedom of movement, or participation in society without a male guardian. They’re restricted from even visiting public spaces or historical sites. This form of gender isolation is tantamount to annihilation, reducing women to nothingness. The silence of the international Islamic community is deafening. They observe this appalling situation without taking any meaningful action, and it’s unacceptable.
If this ban continues, a very real impact will be felt as soon as five or six years from now. Afghanistan won’t have any female teachers. There won’t be any women doctors or nurses. Do you think a Taliban leader would ever take his wife to a male doctor to give birth? Have they ever thought about this? This is a huge loss. The loss of girls’ education is the most transformative phenomenon that could happen to a country. Girls’ education is important for the economy, for the environment, for society. It brings more prosperity to families, communities. It is a basic human right. Stopping girls from going to school is extremely stupid.
And I personally think that some of the Taliban leaders do understand [the adverse economic consequences of excluding women and girls from public life], and they do realize that this is a big loss, because some of the Taliban leaders have lived in Pakistan or in Qatar; they have experienced life outside of Afghanistan. Some of them have sent their own daughters to get an education in countries outside of Afghanistan. So in practice, some of these leaders don’t actually deny the right of girls to an education. They must be aware of the scope and importance of girls education, and that its loss is detrimental not only to these girls and their families, but for the country as a whole.
JURIST: If that’s the case, what would stop those individuals from advocating for schools to reopen?
Yousafzai: I think they believe that there are hardliners within the Taliban. And of course there are, such as the mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada [a notoriously hardline Sunni cleric believed to be at the helm of the Taliban, though some analysts have questioned whether this is true given a lack of public appearances]. He is an extremist who doesn’t respect any women’s rights — especially those related to education. And of course his core supporters don’t want to let girls go to school. And those who do are afraid to speak up. So you end up with this strange and shameful unity within the Taliban’s ranks. They are unified by their fear of girls’ education, by their desire to ban girls’ education. This is such a shameful unity. But despite these fears, they must realize that Afghanistan can’t move forward while depriving half of its population from work, education, and participation in public life. This simply doesn’t work. You can’t fly with one wing.
JURIST: The education ban policy is based on the Taliban’s belief that girls’ education is incompatible with Islam. What do you think they get wrong in their religious interpretation?
Yousafzai: It’s wrong. It’s totally wrong. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in this world. And the Taliban are a few thousand militant men who don’t believe in girls’ education. There are a few other extremist groups who join them in that view, but the remaining 1.8 billion Muslims believe in girls’ education.
In 57 Islamic-majority countries, there’s no outright ban on education, women’s rights to work, or the freedom of movement. The Taliban’s interpretations contradict Islamic principles.
I’ve encountered numerous Afghans who, due to the Taliban’s extremism and their interpretation of Islam, have not only left Afghanistan but have also distanced themselves from the faith. The Taliban’s oppressive approach and their occupation of Afghanistan, falsely using Islam as justification, have severely impacted and disenfranchised the Muslim population. This has led many individuals to feel disheartened and disillusioned. Given the grave harm the Taliban is inflicting upon Islam and its followers, it’s crucial for the Islamic community and the international Islamic organizations to hold them accountable.
The Taliban does not accept other interpretations of Islamic ideology. They would die for their beliefs. I think the only way to start to convince them would be to deploy the religious leaders of the Islamic world, from Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt — from all of these countries — to come together, and go to Kabul and meet the Taliban leadership, and tell them that what they are doing is absolutely un-Islamic and that it must stop.
JURIST: The Taliban has announced plans to build Islamic schools and madrasas for girls. Is this a suitable alternative for girls’ education?
Yousafzai: My personal view is that the beginning of Taliban rule marked the end of modern education in Afghanistan.
They have stopped girls from attending secondary and even primary schools. They have banned women from universities. The past two years have shown a complete crackdown on girls’ education. And for the boys and men, they are changing the curriculum of their schools and colleges. So a process of radicalization is under way. They are charting a course toward ignorance.
The Taliban plans to expand madrasa education, but their plans for this so-called education is not an education at all.
I am a Muslim and I believe one should get a basic Islamic education, but turning every school into a madrasa and turning [girls’ and women’s education in] Afghanistan into one big madrasa is shocking, and poses an existential threat not only to the future of Afghanistan, but to the future of the region — of the world.
Madrasa education is only helpful for educating women and girls on performing basic religious rituals and activities, like prayers, going to Hajj, taking ablution, and certain moral issues. But you cannot run modern institutions without modern education. You cannot run a hospital with a madrasa education. You cannot run a business with a madrasa education. You cannot fly an airplane with a madrasa education. You can’t even drive a car with a madrasa education. It is not an education that will teach girls and women to participate in the economy. It is not a modern education.
Modern education includes science, computers, math — STEM. These fields are so important, so inevitable for modern times that you just can’t get by without them. Compromising modern education means compromising the future of Afghanistan, and ultimately failing the youth of Afghanistan. They won’t be on par with their peers in other countries. They won’t be able to run their own country if they don’t have the basic skills they would gain from a modern education.
And beyond that, the hardline leaders of today’s Taliban were themselves indoctrinated in madrasas. They have been radicalized to the core. They have zero tolerance for new ideas, for different ways of thinking.
As noted above, this is Part One of a two-part interview. Part Two can be found here.