This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The Taliban’s ban on women attending university hit like a bombshell to current and future students, despite the consistent erosion of the rights of women and girls since the hard-line Islamist group seized power last year.
The dire news, delivered by the Taliban’s Higher Education Ministry in a statement on December 20, was condemned internationally and decried by female students.
As the Afghan capital, Kabul, awoke to the gloomy new reality, small demonstrations against the decision were quickly dispersed by Taliban fighters. Protests by women were also held in other cities, while photos of male students walking out of exams in solidarity with women students were published on social media.
Women from around the country who spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi following the announcement described a feeling of despair and helplessness.
“The Taliban has come and taken away our human rights, both the right to education and the right to freedom,” said Najiba, a second-year law student at Bamiyan University in central Afghanistan.
“Imagine how frustrating it would be for a bird with no wings who wants to fly,” she added, using only her first name. “And the right to education is considered a wing not only for me, but for all girls in Afghanistan.”
Tamana Azizi, a medical student in the northern Kunduz Province, said by telephone that her dreams of serving her people as a doctor had been crushed.
“I am very sad because the doors of universities are shut in the faces of girls,” she said. “Closing the doors of the universities means closing our future and losing our dreams and aspirations.”
Farhat Rahmani, a journalism student in the northern Parwan Province, told Radio Azadi by telephone that she felt “destroyed.”
“I think that we will never be able to continue our studies,” she said. “They [the Taliban] did not fulfill any of the promises they made. I have no words to express my sadness.”
Shortly after seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban pledged to uphold women’s rights. The militant group made a public effort to assuage concerns by the international community that it would return to the infamous repression of women and girls during its first stint in power in 1996-2001 — when women were not allowed to work and girls were barred from pursuing an education. But the Taliban has fallen far short of meeting its promises.
During the Taliban’s first year in power, girls were barred from attending school past the sixth grade and women were ordered to wear the all-encompassing burqa. In recent months, women have been banned from entering parks, bathhouses, and gyms, among other public places.
While women and girls were allowed to take university entrance exams a few months ago, the professions they could apply to study were strictly limited, with engineering, journalism, veterinary science, and agriculture not an option.
Universities had until this point remained open to women, although with rules that required female students to use segregated entrances and classrooms, and allowing only women or older men to teach them.
In its December 20 letter, the Taliban’s Higher Education Ministry said the government had evaluated its policy on universities and announced that “female education is suspended until further notice.”
The letter signed by the higher education minister, Nida Mohammad Nadim, said the decision was effective immediately, and ordered educational institutions to inform the ministry of their compliance.
The decision was quickly condemned by countries and rights groups around the world.
During a UN Security Council meeting to discuss Afghanistan on December 20, the United States and Britain harshly criticized the move by the Taliban, whose government has not been recognized by any country.
“The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of all Afghans, especially the human rights and fundamental freedom of women and girls,” U.S. Deputy UN Ambassador Robert Wood said.
British UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward called the ban “another egregious curtailment of women’s rights and a deep and profound disappointment for every single female student.”
Through a spokesman, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a December 21 statement that he was “deeply alarmed by news reports that the Taliban have suspended access to universities to women and girls.”
Guterres reiterated that “the denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls but will have a devastating impact on the country’s future.”