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‘Beaten and humiliated’: Taliban cracks down on Afghan universities in bid to curb women’s protests

Protesters march through the Dashti-E-Barchi neighborhood, a day after the Taliban announced their new all-male interim government with a no representation for women and ethnic minority groups, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, September 8, 2021. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Afghanistan’s universities have become a hotbed of resistance to the Taliban, with female students staging protests against the militant group’s sweeping restrictions on women.

In response, the Taliban has cracked down on several university campuses across the country, violently breaking up demonstrations and expelling students accused of political activism.

In the latest incident, the Taliban beat dozens of female students who staged a rally on October 30 outside their university in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. The incident came after a group of women were barred from entering the campus because of their appearance.

Weeks after seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban imposed a new dress code and gender segregation for women at universities and colleges in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s Education Ministry ordered that all female students, teachers, and staff must wear an all-encompassing burqa or an Islamic abaya robe and niqab that covers the hair, body, and most of the face. Classes must also be segregated by gender — or at least divided by a curtain. Female students must be taught only by other women.

The order was condemned by activists, who said it would create fear and a culture of discrimination against women and girls.

“The beatings and discriminatory rules are aimed at preventing us from protesting and silencing the voices of women,” Nahid, one of the women who protested outside Badakhshan University, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

Nahid, who requested her real name not to be used for safety concerns, said protesting was the only way of preventing the Taliban from “pushing us out” of education.

She said university guards and members of the Taliban’s notorious morality police prevented them from entering the university, telling them that they were not dressed appropriately.

When the women rallied in front of the campus, chanting “Education is our right” and “Woman, life, and freedom,” the guards and Taliban morality police beat them with whips, according to videos posted on social media.

Nahid said the Taliban’s order that all female students wear the blue burqa or the black niqab and abaya was impractical and illogical.

“Where did they get this idea that women can only get an education if they wear certain colors?” she said, adding that many women in Faizabad, the provincial capital of Badakhshan, already dressed conservatively.

Students at Badakhshan University said the Taliban beat dozens of women, several of whom were knocked unconscious.

Nadia, another protesting student who did not want her real name to be used, said the violence did not deter the women from protesting and eventually entering the campus.

“We resisted and kept protesting even after we were beaten,” she told Radio Azadi. “Ultimately, we overcame the pressure and went to our classes.”

The Taliban’s morality police denied beating the students and said university staff dealt with the protesters.

The incident in Badakhshan is the latest crackdown against universities in Afghanistan.

In October, the Taliban expelled dozens of female students from their dormitories in Kabul University, the country’s largest educational institution.

The expulsions of at least 40 female students triggered protests outside the campus, with the women protesters chanting “Education is our red line” and “Silence is treason.”

The Taliban confirmed it had expelled several female students whom it said had violated university regulations, without providing further details. Protesters said those expelled were students who had participated in recent anti-Taliban demonstrations in the city.

In September, a deadly suicide bombing that killed dozens of Afghan girls and women at a Kabul educational center triggered some of the largest and most sustained protests against Taliban rule. Many of the protesters were female university students.

Following the unclaimed attack, scores of women marched through major cities to protest the Taliban government’s restrictions on women and its inability to protect ethnic and religious minorities. Many of the victims of the suicide attack were from the mainly Shi’ite Hazara community.

The Taliban responded to the protests with brute force, detaining, beating, and threatening female demonstrators.

Since the militant group returned to power, it has imposed a raft of restrictions on women, including on their appearance, access to work and education, and freedom of movement. The rules are reminiscent of the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, when the group deprived women of their most basic rights.

In the latest restriction on female education, the Taliban last month banned women from applying for many university courses, including journalism, engineering, economics, and most social and natural sciences.

In one of its first moves after retaking power, the Taliban banned girls above the sixth grade from attending school, in a move that led to widespread condemnation.

“The Taliban morality police visits various departments in the university to make sure that everyone is complying with their rules,” Lina Amiri, a student in the eastern city of Jalalabad, told Radio Azadi. “I’m always afraid of being beaten and humiliated.”

Hadia Tooba, a women’s rights activist, said the “rest of the world is obsessed with development and improving their lives.”

“But here, the authorities are preoccupied with the colors of our veils,” she said.