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Afghanistan: Tears and protests as Taliban shut universities to women

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Image source, AFP

It’s an order that girls and women across Afghanistan had been dreading ever since the Taliban returned. On Wednesday, girls in their hijabs turned up to their university campuses to be blocked and turned away by Taliban guards.

Footage shows groups weeping as they’re led away.

After excluding girls from most secondary schools these past 16 months, the Taliban this week also banned university education for women.

“They have destroyed the only bridge that could connect me with my future,” one Kabul University student told the BBC.

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“How can I react? I believed that I could study and change my future or bring the light to my life but they destroyed it.”

Authorities issued the order on Tuesday – and by the following day other places of learning, including Islamic religious schools and private tuition colleges in several provinces, were also carrying out the ruling.

Sources from three provinces – Takhar in the north, Ghazni in the south-east and the capital Kabul – confirmed to the BBC that the Taliban had stopped girls from attending private education centres there.

All avenues of formal education for women are being shut down, it appears.

It led some women to dare to protest on Wednesday on the streets in Kabul – a dangerous act given the Taliban’s record for detaining protesters. The small demonstrations were quickly shut down by Taliban officials.

This generation had thought they were the lucky ones – getting the education denied to their mothers, older sisters and cousins.

Instead, they’re seeing their future crumble.

Women protest against the ban in Afghanistan

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The Taliban, which began as a hardline Islamist militant group, had promised to respect women’s rights when they swept back to power in August last year – after the horrors of their previous rule from 1996-2001 when women couldn’t work or study.

But their latest decree again strips away whatever scant freedoms and rights had been afforded to women after US-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban returned.

Yet only three months ago, the Taliban had conceded to allowing university entrance exams to go ahead.

Thousands of girls and women sat the tests in provinces across the country. Many had studied in secret – at home or risking venturing to hidden tutoring colleges set up for girls.

But still the young women persisted.

Even when the Taliban in November brought in last-minute restrictions on subjects – barring girls from courses like economics, engineering and journalism – they kept trying, many applying for teaching and medicine.

Afghan female students arrive for entrance exams at Kabul University in Kabul on October 13, 2022

Image source, AFP

As another female student put it to the BBC: “Why should we always be the victim? Afghanistan is a poor country. But women in this country have accepted poverty alongside every other problem and they still they have to suffer.”

Girls’ schooling has long been a point of contention between conservative and more moderate factions in the Taliban.

The university ban now indicates a win by the more fundamentalist in the Taliban, whose supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada believes modern education – particularly for women and girls – is wrong in Islamic teachings.

Yet not everyone in the ruling movement thinks like him – and there were reports more moderate officials in cities like Kabul had wanted girls over the age of 12 to get an education.

As rights advocates have warned, the decision has an impact on the whole country’s future. “No country can thrive when half of its population is held back,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned.

Western countries had insisted on women’s education as a condition the Taliban would need to meet if they wanted global recognition. However the Taliban have ignored the criticism so far.

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

Image source, Getty Images

For Afghan families, both in the country and around the world, seeing the future for their daughters slide back into the “dark ages” has ignited fear and anger.

News of the university ban prompted some Afghan women activists to post stories of their own university graduation days – in cap and gown.

The pushback against the Taliban since they seized power again has not been enough, they say.

And it’s part of a rising tide of restrictions on women’s daily lives in recent weeks. In November, women in Kabul were also stopped from entering public places such as parks and gyms. Women are increasingly being confined to their homes in policies tantamount to imprisonment, says the UN.

‘Action is not Islamic’

For one law student, her higher education path seems over now. Her university term had ended for the winter break and wasn’t due to recommence until March.

But now she’s not allowed to step foot back onto campus – she has “lost everything”. As a Sharia law scholar, she told the BBC she was struggling to make sense of it according to Islamic teachings.

“The Taliban have taken the rights that Islam and Allah have given to us,” she told the BBC.

“They have to go to other Islamic countries and see that their actions are not Islamic. According to what they say this is Sharia. But why do they want to practise it only on women? Why don’t they apply it to men?”

Other religious scholars back up her point. Nawida Khurasani, one of the few female Afghan religious scholars, says the decree defies Islamic values. “It has no place in Islam – because Islam commands both men and women to get an education,” said Ms Nawida, who now lives in Canada.

Nawida Khurasani

Image source, SUPPLIED

Another religious scholar who the BBC spoke to – a male imam living inside Afghanistan – agreed that both men and women should be able to be educated under Islam.

For many Afghanistan watchers however – there’s no point in trying to explain the Taliban’s actions under supposed Islamic teachings. They say the university ban is just a continuation of the movement’s aims to completely suppress women and erase the freedoms they’d had in the years between periods of Taliban rule.

Closing the door on university education is the Taliban completing their control over women.

“Afghanistan is not a country for women but a cage for women,” said Afghan academic and activist Humaira Qaderi, who lives in the United States.

“There’s no social life left for Afghan women. The streets are now dominated by men.

“This was the last thing that the Taliban could do. But they did it.”

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