With extremism creeping into the educational institutions of Afghanistan, some women are being targeted for wearing ‘provocative’ clothes.
KABUL— On a windy afternoon on April 25, Basira Akhtar, a student of law at Kabul University, went about her business organising a student seminar in one of the university’s new auditoriums.
She was on the phone talking to classmates, coordinating last minute logistics when a gust of wind blew her headscarf over. While not legally required, the headscarf is a socially customary garment that women wear in Afghanistan out of cultural respect. “It was around my shoulders but I didn’t even realise it. A few seconds later, I felt a strong blow to the back of my head. Another moment later a kick on my back, and I was on the floor,” Akhtar, 22, told TRT World.
Dazed and injured, Akhtar tried to stand on her feet, but heavy punches rained down, accompanied by abusive screams from a young man named Jahid, who led a mob of at least a dozen students. They all were angry at Akhtar because her headscarf had fallen over her shoulders, revealing her hair.
“I was wearing normal and decent clothes, nothing obscene. But he was cursing me, calling me bad names and saying that I was spreading Christianity,” she said. “I was so scared. I thought I would meet the same fate as Farkhunda.”
Farkhunda, a young Afghan woman, was killed by a mob in Kabul in 2015 for burning a copy of the Quran, an accusation which later turned out to be false.
Akhtar mustered her courage and yelled back at the unruly mob, asking bystanders to call the police. Hearing that, Jihad and his men filed off.
Akhtar reported the incident to the university officials and the police. As the news spread across the country, with the media highlighting it, the police arrested Jahid and he was expelled from the university as well.
“He was arrested briefly but he is free again. And I have received threats and political pressure to withdraw the case,” Akhtar said, adding that she has been attacked and molested on campus twice because many students supported Jahid’s actions and considered him to be ‘righteous’.
Akhtar’s case is symptomatic of the growing sense of radicalisation within campuses in Afghanistan. The issue goes beyond acts of intolerance and there is a real concern among the authorities that Afghan universities are becoming recruiting pools for insurgencies. Earlier last month, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s spy agency, busted a group involving Kabul University professors who were recruiting for Daesh in Afghanistan.
The NDS officials shared their concerns over similar recruitment rings operating in other universities around the country. “This is a sensitive issue because teachers and religious scholars who support jihadi groups hold a lot of influence over the communities. Children and the youth are easily susceptible to such messaging,” an official said on the condition of anonymity, adding that they are monitoring several universities for signs of radicalisation and recruitment.
In a recently-launched report by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies on radicalisation in Afghan universities, researcher Ramin Kamangar explored the phenomenon that is increasingly worrying security officials. The report revealed that nearly 51 percent of the 373 students surveyed, across three major Afghan universities in Kabul, Herat and Nangarhar, were in support of having an ‘Islamic Emirate or Caliphate’ as a system of political governance. The Taliban also refers to their government as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Among a dozen students interviewed by TRT World, more than half rejected the idea of secularism or living along with other religious groups, and the rest aspired to rebuild ‘Khilafat-e-Islami’ or the Islamic Caliphate.
The substantial support for men like Jahid in Afghan universities revealed a major shift in Afghanistan's campus politics, which was once a rather liberal and diverse environment.
“I do not support that a student was expelled from the university for asking a woman to wear her scarf. It wasn’t right that it happened to him,” said 21-year-old Kefayatullah, a student of religious studies. “God has mandated Hijab as compulsory. You have to wear it in the house too. So how can you accept those who come here and not wear hijab?”
Kamangar, the author of the report on radicalisation on campuses, advises a radical shift in the education system to counter the radicalisation. “The current system does not encourage critical thinking and reasoning. Currently, the students are required to memorise a few definitions and are tested on that. This needs to change,” he said, urging universities to build standardised curriculum that gives space for critical thinking and creativity among the youth.
The officials at Kabul University told TRT World that radical thinking is on the rise on campus.
“We are very concerned about issues of radicalisation that have been raised in our campus recently, and we have taken them seriously, and plan to address them,” Mohammad Reza Farzan, Vice Chancellor at Kabul University, told the TRT World. “We organised conferences and student dialogues to tackle the issue, and also involved Islamic scholars to engage the students in a debate as well as inform them of the threats posed by such ideologies.”
Farzan argued that the root of the problem existed in the Afghan society. “Kabul University is part of the Afghan society and we can’t remove ourselves from the problems that face the entire society,” he said.
Meanwhile, the students, especially the women, have felt the impact of growing extremism. Nearly all the female students at Kabul University that TRT World spoke to admitted to being harassed for not following a conservative dress code or for not fully covering their hair with Hijab.
“Of course, I don’t feel safe, even in an academic environment and crowd like this which is supposed to be educated, and with some of the best people of this country; but even around them I feel so uncomfortable. Because no matter how well you dress with the most decent proper hijab, they will comment and criticise and tell you that your hijab is not proper,” said 21-year-old Faiza Amiri, a student of Environmental Science. “The problem isn’t our hijab, the problem is their thinking and ideology. They don’t realise that Islam is not about wearing a headscarf, it is about humanity and respecting each other and understanding each other.”
Amiri’s views resonated with Akhtar's and they both are determined to work toward changing the patriarchal attitudes in the society. “I am fighting because I cannot let this be the legacy of the university. I want what happened to me go down in the institution’s history so that other women find the confidence to continue this fight,” Akhtar said.