Following the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, women in Afghanistan have faced numerous restrictions, including a ban on attending university. While male students have returned to their classes after the winter break, female students remain barred from attending. This ban has sparked global outrage and has been described as “gender discrimination” by many women in Afghanistan. The Taliban government imposed the ban, accusing female students of ignoring a strict dress code and a requirement to be accompanied by a male relative to and from campus.
Many universities in Afghanistan had already introduced gender-segregated entrances and classrooms, as well as allowing women to be taught only by female professors or old men. However, this ban has effectively squeezed women out of public life since the Taliban regained power. Women have been removed from many government jobs or are paid a fraction of their former salary to stay at home. They are also barred from going to parks, fairs, gyms, and public baths, and must cover up in public.
The Taliban authorities have effectively closed down secondary schools for girls, which have been closed for more than a year. Despite promises that the ban on women’s education is temporary, they have failed to reopen these schools. They have wheeled out a litany of excuses for the closure, from a lack of funds to the time needed to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines. The reality, according to some Taliban officials, is that the religious scholars advising Afghanistan’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada are deeply sceptical of modern education for women.
Many students and rights groups have condemned the restrictions, which the United Nations called “gender-based apartheid”. Ejatullah Nejati, an engineering student at Kabul University, Afghanistan’s largest, said it was a fundamental right of women to study. “Even if they attend classes on separate days, it’s not a problem. They have a right to education and that right should be given to them,” Nejati said as he entered the university campus.
On Monday, rights group Amnesty International appealed to the UN Human Rights Council to address the “relentless abuses” by the Taliban, including severe restrictions on women and freedom of speech. “The human rights situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly, and the Taliban’s relentless abuses continue every single day,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general. “It is clear that the Taliban are not willing nor able to investigate actions by their members that grossly violate the human rights of Afghanistan’s population,” she added.
The international community has made the right to education for women a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the Taliban government. No country has so far officially recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers. However, several Taliban officials say the ban on women’s education is temporary, but despite promises, they have failed to reopen secondary schools for girls. It remains to be seen whether the international community can pressure the Taliban government into lifting these restrictions and allowing women to pursue higher education.