Afghan Taliban rulers have banned university education for women across the country, prompting condemnation from the United States and the United Nations for another assault on human rights.
Despite promising a softer rule when they seized power last year, the Taliban have stepped up restrictions on all aspects of women’s lives, ignoring international outcry.
“You are all informed to immediately implement the said order to suspend the education of women until further notice,” Higher Education Minister Neda Mohammad Nadeem said in a letter to all state and private universities.
Ministry spokesman Ziaullah Hashimi, who tweeted the letter, confirmed the order in a text message to AFP.
Washington condemned the decision “in the strongest terms”.
“The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of everyone in Afghanistan. This decision will affect the Taliban,” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“No country can prosper if half its population is held back.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “deeply troubled” by the ban, his spokesman said Tuesday.
“The Secretary-General reiterates that the denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls, but will also have a devastating impact on the future of the country,” Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement.
The higher education ban comes less than three months after thousands of girls and women across the country took college entrance exams, many aspiring to choose education and medicine as future careers.
The universities are currently on winter break and will reopen in March.
After the Taliban took over the country, universities were forced to introduce new rules, including gender-segregated classrooms and entrances, while women were only allowed to be taught by female professors or old men.
Most teenage girls across the country have already been banned from secondary education, severely limiting college enrollment.
Journalism student Madina, who wanted only her first name published, struggled to grasp the weight of Tuesday’s order.
“I have nothing to say. Not only me, but all my friends have no words to express our feelings,” the 18-year-old told AFP in Kabul.
“Everyone is thinking about the unknown future ahead of them. They have buried our dreams.”
The country was returning to “dark days,” added medical student Rhea in the capital, who asked for her name to be changed.
“When we hoped to make progress, they remove us from society,” said the 26-year-old.
– ‘A fundamental human right’ –
The Taliban adhere to an austere version of Islam, with the movement’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and his inner circle of Afghan clerics opposing modern education, especially for girls and women.
But they are at odds with many officials in Kabul and among their constituencies who had hoped girls would be allowed to continue learning after the takeover.
“There are serious differences of opinion in the ranks of the Taliban on girls’ education, and the latest decision will exacerbate these differences,” a Taliban commander in northwest Pakistan told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In a brutal turnaround in March, the Taliban blocked girls from returning to secondary schools on the morning they were due to reopen.
Several Taliban officials say the ban on secondary education is only temporary, but they have also come up with a slew of excuses for the closure — from a lack of funds to the time it will take to convert the syllabus to Islamic lines.
Since Prohibition, many teenage girls have been married off early — often to much older men of their father’s choice.
Several families interviewed by AFP last month said that, coupled with economic pressures, the school ban meant securing their daughters’ futures by getting married was better than doing nothing at home.
– International pressure –
Women have also been pushed out of many government jobs — or paid reduced wages for staying at home. They are also not allowed to travel without a male relative and must cover themselves outdoors, ideally with a burqa.
In November they were not allowed to go to parks, carnivals, gyms and public baths.
The international community has made the right to education for all women a sticking point in negotiations for aid and recognition of the Taliban regime.
“The international community has not and will not forget the Afghan women and girls,” the UN Security Council said in a September statement.
However, Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor, said on Tuesday that engagement with the Taliban is still the best way forward.
“I am disappointed by the decision taken today,” Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said during a visit to Washington.
But he said: “I still think the easiest way to our goal – despite a lot of setbacks when it comes to women’s education and other things – is through Kabul and through the caretaker government.”
In the 20 years between the Taliban’s two governments, girls were allowed to go to school and women could look for work in all sectors, although the country remained socially conservative.
Authorities have also returned to public flogging and executions of men and women in recent weeks, as they apply an extreme interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.