The Taliban banned women from studying in public and private universities in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the latest move by the country’s religious rulers to roll back women’s rights and flout international demands that human rights be respected.
The ruling is expected to impact thousands of women across the country, especially in urban areas where most Afghan universities are located. In Kabul, women trying to attend private universities were turned away Wednesday morning, according to interviews with students.
At one university, professors who allowed women to sit for their final exam of the year were rounded up and brought to a local police station by Taliban security forces, according to a student who was present. This student, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
With the ban on university attendance, nearly all Afghan women above the age of 12 are now barred from formal education. The move is also expected to further restrict the ability of Afghan women to participate in the workforce and other aspects of public life.
Many Afghan women said the university ban is a clear sign that the Taliban movement will treat women the same way it did when it last controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
“All I see ahead of us is a dark future that is getting closer and closer every day,” said a history student at Kabul’s Education University. The 20-year-old said she hopes the Taliban reconsider before university students return from winter break, but she doesn’t believe the group will ease up.
The Taliban harshly curtailed women’s freedoms when it ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The group banned women and girls from studying, barred them from working or leaving their homes without a male relative, and mandated that they be in a head-to-toe covering in public. In some cases, the militants publicly executed women who violated their rules based on an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.
“As a woman, I am only expecting worse and worse rulings,” the history student said. “We were anticipating these days, and now the Taliban have proven with their actions that women mean nothing to them.”
As Taliban officials have pushed for international recognition, greater respect for women’s rights and expanded access to education for Afghan women and girls have been key demands of the United States, United Nations and other western countries.
Speaking to the U.N. Security Council — which has not recognized the Taliban-run government — as the news broke, Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood condemned “in the strongest terms this absolutely indefensible position.”
“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 freedoms of women and girls,” he added.
Despite increasing international pressure, Taliban policies have steadily restricted the rights and freedoms of women in recent months.
“It feels like the Taliban are making it a crime to be a woman,” a 20-year-old psychology student at Kabul University said of Tuesday’s ruling. She said the reaction among her fellow students ranged from anger to hopelessness. “What did we do wrong?” she asked.
She warned that the ban would not only hurt women but would aggravate the country’s economic crisis as women dropped out of the workforce. “If women are eliminated from society, Afghanistan will collapse,” she said.
British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward said the ban was “another egregious curtailment of women’s rights and a deep and profound disappointment for every single female student,” Reuters reported.
Ziaullah Hashmi, who shared the news in a letter on his personal Twitter account, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After a U.S.-led war toppled the government, Afghan women gradually gained greater access to education, employment and political opportunities.
But the gains suddenly came crashing down in August 2021, when Washington withdrew its last troops and the Taliban swiftly retook control. Despite pledging to have reformed, the group reinstated bans on girls in primary and secondary schools and reimposed its repressive dress code, among other restrictions on women’s employment, movement and everyday lives.
The United States, European Union and United Nations, among others, have imposed sweeping sanctions and funding freezes on Afghanistan and pledged to not recognize the Taliban-led government unless it fundamentally reforms.
“We will continue to work with this council to speak with one voice on this issue,” Wood said Tuesday.
“The Taliban are making it clear every day that they don’t respect the fundamental rights of Afghans, especially women,” tweeted Fereshta Abbasi, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, on Tuesday.
George reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.