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Afghanistan: Taliban ban women from many university subjects

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“I went to the entrance exam with lots of hope. But when I saw the selection paper, I couldn’t find my favourite subject,” says a tearful Fatima.

The 19-year-old is a student from Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan. The BBC is not using her real name for her safety.

Fatima’s dreams of pursuing a career in journalism have been put in jeopardy because of a new order by the country’s Taliban rulers.

A year after banning most teenage girls from attending school, the Taliban are imposing sweeping restrictions on which courses women can enrol in at public universities.

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“I dreamed of being a journalist. I wanted to work on radio and TV. I want to fight for women’s rights,” Fatima told the BBC.

She did not get to complete her final year at school as girls were banned from high school by the Taliban after they seized power in August 2021.

The militant group have said the correct “Islamic environment” needs to be created for older girls to be allowed back into schools, but more than a year after they returned to power this still has not happened in most provinces, with reports suggesting hardliners in the group remain opposed to it.

A class divided by a curtain separating males and females at a private university in Kabul

Image source, Getty Images

But the Taliban did make the decision that girls who were in the last year of school could also sit university entrance exams.

Fatima’s excitement was short-lived however.

The Taliban concession came with limitations on the subjects women, but not men, could choose.

For instance, at Nangarhar University where Fatima hoped to study journalism, in the province neighbouring hers, girls are now given the right to choose from only seven of 13 faculties. Women are not permitted to take subjects like journalism, agriculture, veterinary medicine, engineering or economics.

“All their hopes are gone now,” says Fatima, of the girls who would have pursued studies in these areas if they’d passed the entrance exam.

Students walk along a street near the Kabul University after it was reopened in Kabul on February 26, 2022. (Photo by Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP)

Image source, Getty Images

She and the other female students were given the option of taking a test in subjects such as nursing, midwifery or literature, which are among the courses on offer at the seven faculties open to them at Nangarhar.

University professors who supervised the entrance examination there confirmed to the BBC that boys would be allowed to choose any subject they want.

“The selection paper was not given to us in advance. When we – a group of about 10 girls – saw the paper and couldn’t find the faculties we wanted, we all broke down in tears,” Fatima recounted.

The choice for female students can vary from university to university, and depending on which part of the country you’re in, the BBC has found. Women are allowed to take medicine and nursing in all provinces, as well as teacher training and Islamic studies.

But veterinary science, engineering, economics and agriculture appear off-limits to women nationwide, while opportunities to study journalism are extremely limited.

It has been a tough journey for Fatima and her friends. Since schools were shut to them, they have had to prepare for university entrance at home. Fatima organised group studies with other girls.

“In our area there are no opportunities to take tuition classes. They were all closed.”

A number of girls in Herat gather to stage a demonstration demanding to continue their education in schools and universities

Image source, Getty Images

Officials expect 100,000 students (including 30,000 women) to take university entrance exams in Afghanistan this year.

The academic year starts either in March or August, and it usually takes two to three months for entrance exam results to be announced. Now, with the Taliban back in power, nobody is sure when the results will be released.

Male and female students have been taking the exams separately – in line with Taliban rules on segregating students by gender – for example boys in the morning, girls in the afternoon or by using screens in exam halls. In some provinces where the candidate numbers were high, entrance exams were held over two or three days.

Activists say the number of female students applying for university will fall dramatically in the coming years, unless the Taliban reopen secondary schools to girls from grades 6 to 12.

In Laghman province last year nearly 1,200 girls took the test while this year the number had fallen to just 182 girls.

University of Kandahar

Image source, Getty Images

Taliban officials are downplaying the restrictions.

Abdul Qadir Khamush, who heads the examinations division in the Ministry of Higher Education, says girls can choose their favourite subject, with the exception of just three or four.

“We need to provide separate classes for women. In some areas the number of female candidates are low. So we are not allowing women to apply for certain courses.”

Officials are yet to reveal the number of university places on offer this year.

Afghanistan’s education sector was badly affected after the Taliban takeover and there has been an exodus of trained academics after the withdrawal of US-led forces last year.

The country’s economy has been largely dependent on foreign aid in recent decades, but aid agencies have partly – and in some cases fully – withdrawn support to the education sector after the Taliban refused to allow girls into all secondary schools.

Many of the teaching staff who remain go unpaid for months.

A female student walks past a campus entrance at Kabul University

Image source, Getty Images

Taliban restrictions on which subjects girls can study are not always uniformly applied across the country, the BBC has discovered. For instance, in Kabul University, girls are still allowed on some courses in the journalism faculty.

But Fatima cannot circumvent the rules by applying to universities in places as far away as the capital. The Taliban have divided the country into a number of zones and girls are not allowed to study outside them, in what amounts to another very serious restriction based on sex.

“I can only study what they offer me. I have no option,” says Fatima, but she has not quite given up on her dream.

“If the government changes its policy next year, I will choose journalism.”

But if that doesn’t happen, she and other girls like her will have no option other than to study what the Taliban let them if they want to go to university.

For the tens of thousands of teenage girls currently being denied a secondary education – even that choice may not be open in future.

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