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Suhailah Akbari argues that international academic institutions must take proactive action in the face of an unprecedented crackdown on women and girls’ access to education in Afghanistan. In this piece, she proposes several ways to support female Afghan academic and researchers.

Higher education and academic freedom are fundamental human rights that shape human life and societal development. Indeed, the importance of global higher education has never been more pronounced, given its impact on critical contemporary issues. Moreover, international organisations championing human rights have a moral duty that extends beyond just advocacy. They are entrusted with the responsibility to take concrete actions and establish programmes to protect and nurture these rights, particularly in societies where various factors jeopardise essential human rights, including education and academic freedom.

In other words, international academic institutions have a moral obligation to utilise their academic and educational resources to sustain academic endeavours and higher education. While this obligation encompasses promoting the right to higher education for all members of these societies, it must prioritise support for girls and women - the most vulnerable demographic.

Given the universal applicability of gender equality and inclusiveness, European academic institutions should extend their efforts beyond regional boundaries. As such, they must engage in a broader, coordinated academic feminist external policy, especially in relation to vulnerable societies where girls and women are most affected by the suppression of higher education and academic freedom. Having said that, the current crackdown on higher education and academic freedom for Afghan girls and women presents an unprecedented case requiring urgent and extensive support.

Supporting Afghan girls and women in pursuit of higher education and academic freedom

Since their return to power in August 2021, the Taliban have denied Afghan women and girls the rights, inter alia, to secondary and higher education, work, and any other public enagements. They allow only girls under the age 12 to attend school. Beyond this age and upon completion of the sixth grade, female students are prohibited from pursuing further education. This prohibition stems from the Taliban’s misguided belief that educating females contributes to heightened moral corruption within society.

These bans, while destructive in numerous ways, are particularly irreparable in the long run in the context of secondary and higher education. Indeed, they hold dire consequences not only for the current generation of Afghan girls and women but for the future of the entire Afghan nation. This urgent situation presents a compelling case that underscores the moral responsibility of academic institutions worldwide. Supporting schools and universities within Afghanistan is technically, financially and politically challenging at this time. Yet, providing potential Afghan female researchers to continue advanced study or research outside of Afghanistan through increased scholarships, fellowships and research programmes remains a viable approach.

Although there have been commendable efforts from a handful of European academic institutions, think tanks and civic foundations, the number of scholarships and academic fellowships offered to Afghan university students and at-risk researchers remains comparably limited. Moreover, stringent eligibility criteria and administrative processes have further restricted the participation of Afghan female university students and researchers. For example, the majority of available scholarships require a standard language proficiency certificate. In addition, many fellowships require a minimum of a master’s degree, with some even requiring a doctoral degree, despite the fellowships themselves being non-degree research opportunities.

What concrete steps can the European higher education community take?

Academic institutions should be attentive to these challenges when offering scholarships or fellowships.  Here are some recommended solutions:

  1. Eligibility criteria: While it is important to uphold standard eligibility and qualifications, exceptions can be made for vulnerable female university students and researchers whose access to opportunities has been limited. Academic institutions and fellowship providers should recognise their resilience and determination, and consider lowering requirements to ensure proportional access to higher education.
  2. Supervision: Applicants, especially those lacking established networks, often struggle to find a supervisor, which is a primary requirement for fellowship applications. Academic institutions and fellowship providers should consider offering assistance in finding suitable supervisors.
  3. Visa process: Experience suggests that cumbersome visa processes have deterred potential applicants, as it often takes months to a year just to get a visa appointment. To mitigate this challenge, academic institutions and fellowship providers can liaise with relevant embassies to expedite visa appointments and travel arrangements.
  4. Orientation programmes: Preparatory programmes, such as academic skills training and language proficiency courses - to equip applicants for successful integration into competitive higher education environments abroad - are necessary.
  5. Family support: Often, finding kindergartens for children of female researchers has been reported to be a major obstacle to their academic progress. Although some academic institutions have been attentive to this challenge, it nonetheless remains broadly unsolved. Support to family integration and resettlement supports the successful integration and academic progress of female researchers.

What is the long-term perspective?

The sustainability of support from international academic institutions and organisations might be questioned if the Taliban remains in power and maintains the ban on female secondary and higher education, which is highly possible. This raises valid concerns about continuing support when there might be no female researchers or university students in Afghanistan in 5 to 10 years.

Without secondary schools for girls, identifying future female university students and researchers, even for scholarships, would be extremely challenging. Nonetheless, similar to the period of Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, in some regions of Afghanistan girls receive free online or in-person secret schooling. These initiatives, although not widespread, are managed by segments of the Afghan diaspora and educated individuals within the country. If international educational and non-governmental organisations support these efforts, Afghan girls and women could have opportunities for secondary education in the future, preparing them for university studies.

Now, and into the future, international academic institutions have a moral duty to proactively engage in aiding female researchers and academics from Afghanistan, notably through the actions outlined above. These institutions can play a pivotal role in empowering Afghan women and contributing to a more equitable, progressive and inclusive global landscape.


Suhailah Akbari
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Suhailah Akbari is a postdoctoral researcher in law at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and a fellow of the Philipp Schwartz Initiative. She is also Co-founder and Co-director of the Institute for Law and Society in Afghanistan. Founded in Germany following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the institute aims to promote policy discussions and academic debates on Afghanistan's legal issues and to support Afghan legal and social scholars with their research and academic development.

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