The Taliban have banned all women in Afghanistan from both private and public universities in their latest restriction of women’s rights.
Announcing the news late on Tuesday (20 December), a spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education, Ziaullah Hashmi, confirmed that the ruling would take immediate effect and continue indefinitely. He also shared a letter from higher education minister, Neda Mohammad Nadeem, which said universities should contact the ministry as soon as the “suspension of the education of females” was in place.
It is the latest crackdown on women’s freedom since the Taliban regained power of Kabul in August 2021. Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, and saying women’s and minority rights would be respected, there has widely been harsher interpretation of Islamic Law - or Sharia.
Girls have been excluded from secondary school since last year, and women were recently banned from parks and gyms. They are also blocked from most fields of employment - and it is mandatory for women and girls to wear the hijab or the burqa when outside of the home.
The most recent measure has sparked despair among young people in the country, particularly as it comes just weeks after Afghan girls took their graduation exams. A third-year journalism and communication student at Nangarhar University said: “I can’t fulfill my dreams, my hopes. Everything is disappearing before my eyes and I can’t do anything about it.” She wished to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety.
“Is being a girl a crime? If that’s the case, I wish I wasn’t a girl,” she added. “My father had dreams for me, that his daughter would become a talented journalist in the future. That is now destroyed. So, you tell me, how will a person feel in this situation?”
Women also staged protests in capital city Kabul following the news, although officials from the Taliban quickly shut down the demonstrations. “Today we come out on the streets of Kabul to raise our voices against the closure of the girls’ universities,” protesters from the Afghanistan Women’s Unity and Solidarity group said.
The United Nations and several countries have condemned the decision, which takes Afghanistan back to the Taliban’s first period of rule in the 1990s when girls could not receive formal education.
UN Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan said the ban was “a new low further violating the right to equal education” which “deepens the erasure of women from Afghan society.” Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the development “very troubling”.
Both the UK and the US were among those to speak out against the crackdown, with Barbara Woodward, Britain’s ambassador for the UN, telling the council the latest suspension was “another egregious curtailment of women’s rights”, “a deep and profound disappointment for every single female student”, and “another step by the Taliban away from a self-reliant and prosperous Afghanistan.”
Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, added: “The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of all in Afghanistan. No country can thrive when half of its population is held back.”
The hardline clerical regime previously drew criticism from many foreign governments in March for making a U-turn on a previous commitment to open educational institutions to girls beyond grade six. Instead, on the first day of the new school year, Taliban government officials announced that high schools would remain closed for girls.
They said they would only be re-opened once a plan was established which ensured girls’ attendance complied with the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.
Decisions such as these mean the country’s seat at the UN is still held by the previous government, led by former President Ashraf Ghani - in spite of requests from the Taliban to represent the country.