Rangina Hamidi gives the Wallenberg Tribute Lecture

Hamidi served as Afghanistan’s Minister of Education until 2021.

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Hamidi spent her entire political career in Afghanistan fighting for women's rights in the country. Image courtesy of Make Mothers Matter

Last Sunday, Nov. 13, Rangina Hamidi lectured at Muhlenberg College on Afghanistan education for the annual Wallenberg Tribute Lecture. Hamidi was born in Afghanistan before fleeing at a young age after the Soviet invasion. Her family found refuge in the United States where she went on to attend the University of Virginia, majoring in religion studies and women and gender studies. After the US overthrew the Taliban in the early 2000s, Hamidi moved back to Afghanistan where she worked tirelessly to promote education. Her efforts eventually led to her being selected as the minister of education for the country. She held that position until the Taliban retook power in 2021. She is now a professor of practice at the University of Arizona. 

Hamidi began her lecture talking about the progress that was made in the twenty years after the Taliban fell and then subsequently lost when the Taliban regained power. Hamidi detailed how following the fall of Taliban rule, schools began to be built at an unprecedented rate in the country. Furthermore, the schools that were being built were open to women, a group that historically had been prevented from obtaining an education. The inclusion of women led to a shift in the general belief towards education in Afghanistan: that women belonged in schools and universities. However, that progress was quickly lost once the Taliban assumed power again, with the regime quickly moving to ban girls from obtaining higher than a sixth grade education. 

Hamidi then discussed the history of education in Afghanistan. According to Hamidi, although Madrasas are falsely believed to be training schools for terrorists, prior to the 20th century they acted as Afghanistan’s colleges and universities. They emphasized both religious and secular ideas, focusing on science, religion, philosophy and music. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, the modern education system was established, with the first official high school opening in the 1950s. 

However, education progress in Afghanistan has not been linear. According to Hamidi, while Afghanistan has historically supported education, “instead of education being a tool to unify and solve problems, it has been used and abused by various political factions as a source of conflict.” As a result, Hamidi stated that education policies are often dependent on those in power, making it hard to have consistent education policies as political power has shifted hands. This was seen during a series of wars and conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, they used the schools to indoctrinate teachers and children with Soviet communist ideology. Therefore, with schools being used as a Soviet political tool, attending school became discouraged as it was seen that in order for Afghanistan to win the war, its kids needed to stop being brainwashed by a politicized school system. In that way, the progress made in the earlier part of the 20th century was wiped away, as school attendance dropped. Hamidi tied that politicization into Afghanistan’s current situation as well, stating that “today when the Taliban are in power, of course they want to occupy education to serve their needs and their world view as they know it.”  

Even though it can seem discouraging to see the state of Afghanistan’s education system today, Hamidi has a hopeful outlook. Towards the end of the lecture, she stated three things that needed to be changed in order for Afghanistan’s education system to work and last. All three steps were centered around her belief that “we need to rethink and redesign an education system that addresses local and global complexities.” The first step was to move from a single delivery system to a much larger equal system perspective that combines multiple pathways. The second step was to support platforms for dialogue that include local and global actors. Lastly, Hamidi advocated for a system redesign to synergize local and global aspirations. 

Hamidi ended her lecture by discussing the dangers of economizing education, caring more about the cost of implementing a sound education system than the actual quality of the system; doing so leaves education at the mercy of the economy or the budgeting policies of the current government. As Hamidi concluded, “education should not be about business, it should be about coming up with new solutions to old problems. But if we start attaching a dollar sign to [everything], then we have done an injustice.”

The lecture was well received by students. Rachelle Benitez ‘25 commented, saying that “What stuck to me the most was when she discussed the relationship between women and religion. I think she made some good points about how religion does not restrict women, but that it is often the government and men’s views of religion that do.”

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