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Restrictions on girls’ education across South Asia highlights rising authoritarianism

A few weeks ago, on 23rd March, the Taliban in Afghanistan announced a U-turn in their previous commitments to allow girl children to continue studying in secondary education. This regressive move came on the same day that high school-age girl children were supposed to be allowed back into classrooms after the Taliban’s earlier prohibition. Girl students across the country had packed their school bags, put on their uniforms, and travelled to their schools, only to be turned away again.

Image: J.Field

Education has long-been inaccessible for many girls in Afghanistan, and repeatedly used as a political pawn in various powers’ reimagining of the governance of the country. In the 1990s, when the Taliban was previously in power, women and girls were prohibited from accessing nearly all levels of education. In 2001, a US-led military intervention toppled the Taliban and installed a new government ostensibly committed to improving the education and life prospects of Afghanistan’s women and girls. Yet, a decade later, 66% of secondary school aged girls were still out of school, compared to 40% of boys. Two decades later – after a disastrous withdrawal of Western forces and the collapse of the Afghan government – the country is back in the hands of the Taliban, whose rural, tribal, and deeply conservative base dictates policy. Once again, secondary schools for girls are suspended, and tertiary education hangs in the balance.

Afghanistan is not unique in the region. Education prospects for girls, and for all children from marginalised groups, is worsening across many parts of South Asia.

Bangladesh, for example, is hosting the largest refugee population in the world. More than 800,000 Rohingya refugees are living in coastal Cox’s Bazar after fleeing atrocities committed against them by Myanmar’s military forces. While Bangladesh is giving Rohingyas refuge from persecution and genocide, the government has simultaneously gone to great lengths to restrict Rohingyas from exercising the fundamental right of receiving a basic education.

Specifically, Bangladesh has prohibited Rohingya children from enrolling in schools outside of the camps, barred humanitarian organisations setting up schools that offer Rohingya children formal education, and banned informal schools set up by Rohingyas themselves. In recent weeks, the government has also threatened to confiscate Rohingya identity documents and ship them to the remote, prison-like (and dangerously flood-prone) island of Bhasan Char if they defy the ban.

Image: J.Field

Bangladesh’s denial of education to all Rohingya children is the denial of a basic human right – and for young girls, this situation poses additional risks. Girls outside of education face heightened risk of child/early marriage, decreased social mobility, limited access to information, decreased participation in decision-making, increased dependence on family, and an increased risk of gender-based violence. Despite these discriminatory (and generation-long) impacts, Bangladesh maintains tight restrictions on Rohingya children’s abilities to learn, as the government seeks to coercively push Rohingyas to repatriate to Myanmar as soon as possible.

In neighbouring India, the situation is also worsening for many girls. In recent months, Muslim girl students have become a flashpoint for growing Islamophobic intolerance across the country.

In September 2021, a school in the southern Indian state of Karnataka banned several Muslim girl students from entering their classrooms while wearing their hijabs. The students and their parents objected to this sudden infringement of religious freedom and dignity, and the situation escalated as the school maintained its position. In February, the Karnataka state government upheld the ban by supporting a school’s right to dictate uniforms. Other schools followed suit in the prohibition.

Image: J.Field

When students attempted to continue to attend schools wearing hijabs and were still denied entry, protests ensued – and these were met with counter-protests by Hindu students that escalated into violence in some areas. The Karnataka government shut down schools and colleges across the state for three days. Then, in March, the High Court of Karnataka further upheld the ban of hijabs in classrooms – sparking fears that other state governments across the country would follow in-step.

In these regressive and ideological moves to ban the hijab, school leaders, government officials, and the courts in Karnataka have negatively impacted the learning progress of the students turned away from classrooms – and indeed the whole state with the state-wide shut down of colleges. These moves could be seen to invite further discrimination and violence against Muslim school girls in the coming weeks and months as these students try to restart their learning. Moreover, Karnataka authorities have fundamentally undermined the sense of safety that Muslim girl students, and other marginalised students, are entitled to feel in classrooms across the country.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and India are all committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which includes SDG 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Part of what sits behind this goal is the recognition that girls’ education is more than individual learning, it “strengthens economies and reduces inequality. It contributes to more stable, resilient societies that give all individuals – including boys and men – the opportunity to fulfil their potential”. And yet, despite these three South Asian nations professing in different ways to aspire to growing economies and resilient societies, their adherence to regressive ideologies seems to come first – whether it’s the ingrained misogyny of the Taliban, exclusion of non-citizens from fundamental rights in Bangladesh, or rising Islamophobia in India.

It is not a coincidence that these repressions of girls’ education are occurring with impunity at the same time in different countries in the region. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, they signal the region’s entrenchment of authoritarian styles of governance. As campaigner Laura Thornton wrote in the Washington Post last year, ‘the steady drip of authoritarian attacks related to gender is a strategy, not a series of one-off events. Authoritarians are fanning existing embers of intolerance and misogyny by targeting women [and girls] in public life’. Women and girls from marginalised communities are particularly at risk.

Wherever they occur, restrictions of girls’ education and other forms of gender-based discrimination shouldn’t be treated as singular news items; if they are to be resisted effectively, they need to be contextualised, analysed, and condemned as part of regional and global authoritarian strategies to stoke fear and wield power. A society where girls cannot access education at all, or where their dignity and religious freedoms are undermined while learning, is not a progressive, inclusive, or resilient society - with these recent events, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and India fall into that category.

Image: J.Field

Author Bio

Dr Jessica Field is a Co-Investigator on the GRRIPP project at University College London, and an independent researcher and educator. Jessica's research focuses on humanitarian history and refugee protection, particularly in South Asia.


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