Afghan Women's University

Dr Bernard Leeman
Assistant Professor

Al Akhawayn University, Morocco

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has launched a major challenge to the warring factions in its devastated homeland. Convinced neither the Taliban nor the Northern Alliance is willing or capable of guaranteeing a worthwhile future, RAWA has decided to establish its own university and medical school in Pakistan where 3.2 million Afghan refugees are sheltering. RAWA's decision to commit itself to a long-term strategy of educating exiles reflects the deteriorating socio-economic and ideological situation inside Afghanistan.  After eleven years of violent resistance to Soviet occupation and local communist rule, the victorious Mujahideen fell upon each other as soon as they captured Kabul.  The successful rise of the Taliban as a reaction to Mujahideen chaos and corruption has however entrenched even more deeply the ultra conservative Ulema (religious scholars whose polices the Taliban execute) who are responsible for the most draconian living conditions for women anywhere on the planet.  The recent destruction of the giant Buddha statues has been interpreted by observers partially as a reprimand by the Ulema to wavering elements in Taliban advocating a more tolerant gender policy.

In a recent interview with the Qatar-based Egyptian theologian Dr Yusuf al Qaradawi, a Taliban spokesman
declared that his movement had nothing against educating women but, resources being severely limited, it was better to educate boys because girls got married, stayed at home and therefore wasted their education. In Karachi, to the south of the Afghan refugee camps, the Aga Khan University (AKU) is testimony to a greater insight.  The grandfather of the present Aga
Khan believed that if you educate a man, you educate an individual but if you educate a woman, you educate an entire family.  The contrast between the consequences of these conflicting outlooks is tragic. The AKU accept students for courses that include education, medicine and nursing irrespective of background and gender.  Muslim girls educated in Aga Khan institutions have for years become highly successful career women in all parts of the world. Conversely, girls in Afghanistan under Taliban rule are victims of a systematic, mean spirited, ideologically-inspired cruelty.  The Ulema's ideological justification for its ill treatment of women and education policies has several sources.  First is its dubious interpretation of the Qur'an and Islamic Law (Shariat) backed not by debate but by Taliban firepower.  Second, the Ulema has had a nearly 150 year association with the Deoband school in India's Utter Pradesh, an institution geared solely to
producing puritanical and orthodox religious leaders. Third there is Pushtonwali, the Pushtun honour code that equates the exposure of Pushtun women to foreign influences with race suicide.  The Ulema and Taliban are overwhelmingly associated with Pushtun national resurgence and inside the country the terms Pushtun and Afghan are synonymous. 

Finally, and most important, is the Ulema's belief that they alone have the answer to their country's problems.  Afghanistan is a derelict society. Political polarization led to Soviet intervention and civil war that has created a violent gun culture and a
criminal economy based on gem-stone smuggling and opium.  The Ulema, heavily influenced by the teachings inherited from the Pakistani nationalist Abdul Ala Maududi, believe that the uncompromising implementation of its interpretation of Shariat will usher in a perfect Islamic state purged of all western and socialist influences. In accordance to this vision the Ulema, through its
Taliban enforcers, have decreed that no female be educated beyond the age of 12, nor employed as anything more than a Taliban police agent.  The few that receive an education study the Qur'an and selected parts of Shariat by rote.

The Soviet invasion and civil war has dramatically changed Afghan society.  While the Taliban is very much a product of the madrasa, the numerous religious schools in exile financed by conservative Arabic states to combat both Soviet and Iranian Shi'ite influence, the millions of girls and women in exile have depended too much on their own resources to accept uncritically either the Taliban's policies or the Northern Alliance's murderous ineptitude.  Before Taliban made foreign and international agencies' reconstruction difficult or impossible, several foreign international organizations had accomplished valuable work in education, health-care, village engineering, agriculture and mine clearance within Afghanistan and refugee relief outside.  To a certain extent agencies have operated cautiously believing that Afghanistan is an Islamic preserve and aid will be interpreted as a threat to Islam. Consequently some agencies have been criticized for merely providing basic needs to refugees while ignoring their potential.  Secondly there is the factor of "compassion fatigue," a belief that Afghanistan has already swallowed billions (the US alone provided 100 million dollars in aid in 2000) with no improvement.  This mitigates against investing in Afghans themselves. Afghan exiles are diverse and scattered world-wide.

Ideally, RAWA's university would serve as a coordinating body for Afghan expertise as well as a training centre initially offering courses in health-care and education but later medicine, business, administration, information technology, rural development and other disciplines.  The first step is relatively simple.  Certain countries permit the operation of on-line universities with concomitant accreditation bodies.  In addition, challenge examinations are available such as CLEP and GRE that enable students to accumulate credits towards an internationally recognized degree.  For example courses in the Theory and Practice of Childhood Education and Women's Health Care, albeit for a small number of students, could be up and running on line in a very short time administered and tutored by a handful of sympathetic unpaid international academics. During the anti-apartheid era over one hundred academics responded positively to a small advertisement in a British newspaper asking for support for the establishment of an exiled university in Zimbabwe for refugees from South Africa.  Although the project was squashed by the Mugabe government, it was clear that its structure was too small and disorganized to deal with the flood of academic goodwill.  It is not a mistake RAWA intends to make. RAWA can attract international backing and build on its existing fund raising structure if it launches the first part of its university program relatively unaided along with a detailed development plan that provides for rapid expansion.  Its eventual success depends very much however if there is a general acceptance in philanthropic and idealistic circles that Afghanistan is the defining moment in the global struggle for women's empowerment.  If this scheme catches popular imagination, there seems no reason why RAWA should not see an early establishment of its medical school.

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