Written by Müge Çınar
The Arbitrary Arrest of Education Activist Matiullah Wesa
On 27 March 2023, human rights defender Matiullah Wesa was arbitrarily arrested after praying at a local mosque. When Matiullah Wesa stepped out from the mosque, he encountered gunmen with two vehicles who wanted to arrest him. Although Wesa asked for the IDs of the men, they showed their weapons and took Wesa away. Now, Wesa’s family is of great concern for his health and safety. Matiullah Wesa, aged 30, had been threatened before by the Taliban. Despite the threats to his safety, He didn’t leave Afghanistan and stayed to advocate boys’ and girls’ education rights.
On the 27th of March, the UN Special Rapporteur stated that the human rights defender’s safety is the most important and his legal rights have to be respected. On the 28th of March, the UN Mission of Afghanistan (UNAMA) requested the reason behind the arrest of Matiullah Wesa and his location must be announced immediately. Also, the demand for legal representation and contact with the family of Wesa has been expressed by UNAMA. The UN, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations call for urgent action for justice.
On March 29, a Taliban spokesman confirmed his arrest, citing “illegal activities” as the reason for Wesa’s arrest. Wesa’s family has been prohibited from seeing him, and there is no way to challenge the truth of the accusations made against him. After the arrest, the Taliban entered his house; and took phones, documents, and computers. The brothers of Matiullah were briefly held and then freed after receiving a warning.
Matiullah Wesa’s Mission on Promoting Education Rights via PenPath
Matiullah Wesa is known as the most prominent education activist in Afghanistan with his campaigns via the organization PenPath. He established the education organization PenPath with his brothers in 2009. His aim has been to improve and promote education access in all areas of Afghanistan. During his 14-year-old journey of education activism, he traveled to remote and rural parts of the country that were damaged by war and collaborated with the tribal leaders to open schools and libraries to educate children in need. He has been also bringing PanPath’s mobile schools and libraries and most importantly campaigning for women’s education. More than 100 schools have been reopened by Pen Path; and 110,000 kids, 66,000 of whom are girls, have been able to access educational facilities and resources. Is Matiullah being punished for this?
He developed the PenPath network, which now has more than 3,000 volunteers around the nation. They support local classroom setup, teacher recruitment, and supply distribution. He has continued to support girls’ education in his campaigns despite the ban on girls enrolling in secondary schools. He also launched a door to door campaign against the ban on girls’ education.
Wesa has long been an advocate for women’s education in Afghanistan, particularly in rural regions, and his Twitter feed is full of tweets urging for the reopening of schools to women and girls. His last tweet was “Men, women, elderly, young, everyone from every corner of the country is asking for the Islamic rights to education for their daughters,” before his arrest. He was also planning to make a speech at a meeting about girls’ education prior to the situation. The Taliban have made unclear statements claiming Wesa’s activities as “suspicious” concerning his arrest. Although Wesa was not politically engaged, the Taliban’s exploitation of his public image is for their political gain.
Matiullah Wesa’s detention demonstrates the de facto government’s effort to repress human rights advocates and those who speak up for female education rights. Hours before his detention, the human rights advocate was active on Twitter, highlighting the unavoidable and lasting effects of the closure of schools and the prohibition on girls’ education. It is a great reminder to us that consistent action and solidarity of the International community are needed to prevent women from losing their rights in Afghanistan.
Many people have expressed their outrage on social media over Matiullah Wesa’s arrest and called for his release. Wesa has been exercising his right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. According to international human rights law, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Afghanistan is a state party, this arrest clearly violates the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The Exploitation of the Right to Education of Women, Minorities and Conflict-Victims in Afghanistan
Following the US-led invasion that overthrew the previous government in 2001, the Taliban came into power in 2021. With the withdrawal of the US’s remaining troops as decided in a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, the rule of law in Afghanistan has been changed drastically. The Taliban rule has brought barriers to the human rights of women and minorities, imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Since the Taliban came into power in August 2021, the women’s and girls’ right to education, work and free movement has been violated. This situation paved the way for the girls to be subject to discrimination, domestic violence and child marriages. The Taliban announced on March 21, 2022, that all schools would reopen on March 23, but on that day they once more closed secondary schools for girls. The situation has not changed after 1 year in 2023, more than 3 million girls have been denied secondary education.
In November 2022, three women rights activists – Zarifa Yaqoobi, Farhat Popalzai and Humaira Yusuf – were arbitrarily arrested by the Taliban. In December 2022, the Taliban prohibited women from attending universities “until further notice” and instructed all national and international NGOs to terminate the employment of all women on staff “until further notice”.
The Ministry of Higher Education pointed out that the problem derives from Immorality including the presence of female students in dorms, traveling from the provinces without a mahram, failure to observe the hijab wearing and the presence of mixed classes. Banning women from higher education, they were instructed to enroll in public universities near their homes while they are prohibited to study law, commerce, journalism, engineering, agriculture and veterinary medicine. According to the Taliban, closures are temporary, yet authorities blame logistics rather than ideological barriers.
Not only women are deprived of their main right to have an education but religious and ethnic minorities have been suffering from a lack of education and several attacks on educational facilities. According to the UN report on Afghanistan by Richard Bennett, Hazara Community was targeted by 16 attacks, including three against educational institutions. And, Attack on the Kaaj Educational Center on September 30, 2022, left 114 people injured and 54 people dead.
Conflict-related education rights abuses are another important issue to be addressed in Afghanistan. The UN Special Reporter also examined reports that show a huge increase in the recruitment and use of children as soldiers during the past years. Additionally, the rapid rise in attacks against schools, students and educational personnel, nearly eight times per year, has been reported between January and September 2022. The children do not feel safe about their future by not getting proper education and their life by being in the ongoing conflict.
Other Targeted Activists by the Taliban
The Wesa brothers are the most recent arbitrary arrest targeted at society activists and protesters who have spoken out against the closure of education rights for girls and women. The report released in February by UNAMA shows 28 civil society actors and human rights defenders got arbitrarily arrested and 10 journalists and media workers were also arrested to be seen as a threat in the past three months.
No society is able to reach its potential to be developed without activists and human rights defenders to bring consciousness to the people. The historical, geopolitical and religious aspects always play a role in the faith of a nation but civil society could also make it possible for authorities to see their mistake to elevate their people. In the case of this situation in Afghanistan, there must be a double effort by the international community to regain women’s essential human rights in the country.
 UN, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, 9 February 2023 https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/ahrc5284-situation-human-rights-afghanistan-report-special-rapporteur
 UN, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, 9 February 2023
 UN General Assembly Security Council, The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, 27 February 2023
UN, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, 9 February 2023 https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/ahrc5284-situation-human-rights-afghanistan-report-special-rapporteur
UN General Assembly Security Council, The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, 27 February 2023 https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/a77772-s2023151sg_report_on_afghanistan.pdf