Kabul: Hundreds of young women were stopped by armed guards on Wednesday from entering Afghan university campuses, a day after the nation’s Taliban rulers banned them from higher education.
Despite promising a softer rule when they seized power last year, the hardline Islamists have ratcheted up restrictions on all aspects of women’s lives, ignoring international outrage.
A team of AFP journalists saw groups of students gathered outside universities in the capital, Kabul, barred from entering by armed guards and shuttered gates.
Many, dressed in hijabs, were also seen standing in groups on roads leading to the campuses.
“We are doomed. We have lost everything,” said one Kabul student, who asked not to be identified.
The Taliban authorities wanted to “suppress” women, said Setara Farahmand, 21, who was studying German literature at Kabul University.
Male students also expressed shock at the latest edict, with some in the eastern city of Jalalabad boycotting their exams in protest.
“It really expresses their illiteracy and low knowledge of Islam and human rights,” said one male university student, asking not to be named.
Most private and government universities are closed for a few weeks over winter, although campuses generally remain open to students and staff.
The decision to bar women from universities came late Tuesday in a terse announcement from Neda Mohammad Nadeem, the minister for higher education.
“You all are informed to immediately implement the mentioned order of suspending education of females until further notice,” it said.
Washington condemned the decision “in the strongest terms”, while United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “deeply alarmed”, his spokesman said.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also denounced the ban, saying it was “seriously denting the credibility of the government”.
The ban comes less than three months after thousands of girls and women were allowed to sit for university entrance exams across the country, with many aspiring for teaching and medicine as future careers.
“Just think of all the female doctors, lawyers and teachers who have been, and who will be, lost to the development of the country,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk in a statement.
Most teenage girls across the country have already been banned from secondary school, severely limiting university intake.
After the Taliban takeover in August last year, universities were forced to implement new rules including gender-segregated classrooms and entrances, while women were only permitted to be taught by professors of the same sex, or old men.
The Taliban adhere to an austere version of Islam, with the movement’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his inner circle of clerics against modern education, especially for girls and women.
But they are at odds with many officials in Kabul - and among their rank and file - who had hoped girls would be allowed to continue learning following the takeover.
“The latest decision will increase these differences,” a Taliban commander based in northwest Pakistan told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In a cruel U-turn, the Taliban in March blocked girls from returning to secondary schools on the morning they were supposed to reopen.
Several Taliban officials maintained the secondary education ban was only temporary, but 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.
Since the ban, many teenage girls have been married off early.
Several families interviewed by AFP last month said the school ban, coupled with economic pressure, meant securing their daughters’ future through marriage was better than them sitting idle at home.
Women have also been pushed out of many government jobs - or are being paid a fraction of their former salary to stay at home. They are also barred from travelling without a male relative and must cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa.
In November, women were prohibited from going to parks, fairs, gyms and public baths.
The international community has made the right to education for all women a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the Taliban regime.
Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan said that engagement with the Taliban was still the best path forward.
“I’m disappointed by the decision that was taken today,” Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said Tuesday while on a visit to Washington.
But, he added: “I still think the easiest path to our goal - despite having a lot of setbacks when it comes to women’s education and other things - is through Kabul and through the interim government.”
In the 20 years between the Taliban’s two reigns, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though the country remained socially conservative.
The authorities have also returned to public floggings and executions of men and women in recent weeks, as they implement an extreme interpretation of Islamic sharia law.