Afghan women participate in a protest against the university education ban for women, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2022.

Education for women 'is an Afghan value and an Islamic right,' says male professor in solidarity against university ban

Male faculty members have stood up in solidarity with Afghan women following a Taliban decree banning them from attending universities. Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, discusses the situation with The World's host Marco Werman.

The World

The Taliban-led government has banned women from attending private and public universities in Afghanistan.

The decree has come in addition to girls already being excluded from secondary schools in the country since March. And it's sparked international condemnation, with some women staging protests in the capital Kabul. 

Some male faculty members and students have also stood up in solidarity. A number of lecturers to professors have even resigned at one university. The World's host Marco Werman speaks with Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, about the situation.

Marco Werman: Obaidullah, how far reaching are these resignations? What are you seeing? 
Obaidullah Baheer: Well, I saw a list earlier that showed almost 50 names [of people] that had resigned. I mean, I wish they hadn't resigned, because I think we could have created more pressure by boycotting institutes. We have a campaign that has started since yesterday. And you mentioned medical students walking out, and it's called "All or Nothing." And the goal there is if they don't allow male lecturers to teach their female students, then they're not going to teach male students either.And the Taliban yesterday sent in 10 armored cars and enforcers asking everyone to leave campus, that they were shutting down the whole facility. So, it's just mad. I mean, they walked into schools today. They put rifles to the heads of teachers telling them to evict [everyone from] the building as soon as possible. And the reason given by the minister of higher education today was all because girls were staying at female hostels for university and because they weren't respecting the dress code, and such meaningless, farcical excuses were given. And none of these excuses are tangible or measurable. There is no way to measure as to when these are resolved and when the universities can open again. So, they intentionally make these conditions so vague that they can then stretch it out for whatever period they want to.
We're seeing reports of resignations by male colleagues, male faculty in Kunduz, Bamiyan, Nangarhar, other places. It does look like there's some momentum to these resignations. There was a lecturer at Kabul University who told us that the environmental science department has complained about the ban on women, but have not decided on resigning yet. I'm wondering what the pressure is like, both to act and from potential reprisals by the Taliban.
You have to understand that pressure works when pressure is felt, you know. The fact that the Taliban have been out there trying to really show the world that they don't really care for this form of education to begin with — I mean, it might sound ridiculous to you and me — but to them, us walking out of the university is just another excuse to close those universities. So, damned be the economics of it, damned be the future implications of it. They want their way. They want it now. And they don't care as to what it means, because the rationality that you and I share isn't the same rationality that they share, because theirs is compounded by their own understanding of religion. So, they don't look at consequences the way we do, because somehow there is some supernatural aspect to the decisions that they're taking and the reward that follows. So, I don't know. I keep telling people I'm sort of fresh out of ideas because of how madly, like one after the other, these horrible decisions have been coming at us. And, what fire do you put out? Which front do you protect? It's just like everything that you stand for is being taken away and you're being robbed of it while you look at it being taken away. 
To your idea of a boycott then Obaidullah, why do you think that would be a better way to deal with this move by the Taliban to ban women from universities? 
So, my argument has been that we do not need to rush into a reaction. We don't need to be erratic about it, because it does two things. It makes us do things that aren't well-thought through, it's sort of our bursts of energy that burn us out before we can do anything tangible. So, the goal here is we still have two months of winter break in most of the colder provinces in Afghanistan. We have to use this time to think about a good mobilization strategy and a good campaign for when the institutes and the universities are supposed to open again.
It's not the first time, obviously, in recent Afghan history that women have faced discrimination. Have you ever seen this kind of male solidarity for women, either at the university level or generally in society?
Even before the Taliban came in, right after the Taliban came, I was asked as to how things would shape out. And I kept saying, look, this isn't the Afghanistan of the '90s. For 20 years, we had a generation grow up that believed in women deserving a shot at life and being equal to men and believing in their dreams. It does seem like an impossible task, but we are here. And we can't just stop. That's not a luxury we can afford. 
It does seem like within Islamic law, this idea of banning women from secondary education is really disputed. In your experience, Obeidallah, how do university faculty think about that?
Well, I think it's a unanimous belief in Afghanistan across the world that there is no substance or religious justification to stop women from getting educated. And even when they do put forward that argument, they don't say that women shouldn't get educated. They say, "Oh, women can get educated, but it is contingent on the rulers' decision as to whether the circumstances are right." And then they discuss how circumstances are horrible. And sometimes, it's insulting. It's insulting to my religion to actually sit down and have an argument to justify to people that, in Islam that women are allowed to study. It's an absolute fundamental human right. It's an Afghan value. It's an Islamic right. And it shouldn't be taken away under any condition. 
Do you feel that the former occupiers of Afghanistan — the United States — which stood strong for women's rights and education while they were there, should they be speaking out louder right now?
I think them speaking out hurt us, in the first place, during the past 20 years, they made the rights of women sound like such a Western concept. And that's what the Taliban play at. And they keep saying that, "Oh, anything that's related to women is you trying to push for a Western agenda and you guys are paid agents for it," and so on and so forth, which puts civil society actors in a lot of danger.
You're in Kabul, Obaidullah, you're a faculty member and you're speaking with us and sharing your opinions. Are you worried about speaking out and are you thinking of resigning?
Well, my university is online. Our university moved out of Afghanistan right after August 15th. So I have a large population of female students. So, resigning doesn't make sense and depriving the few girls that are actually getting educated at [the] university level. I mean, there is a risk to all of it. There were crackdowns today, raids on activists' houses in Kabul. And I think that the minister of higher education said today in his interview that anyone who speaks up against this ban is committing treason. And we all know what the punishment of treason is. So, we're expected to act like a civil society and push back on policies while we face a trigger-happy opponent in a totalitarian regime. So, it's not the best of situations.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

Related: 'We are erased': The fight to reopen girls secondary schools in Afghanistan continues

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