Afghanistan’s female students see devastation after being banned from universities

Kabul, Afghanistan

The 21-year-old student had been studying hard for weeks as he prepared for his final exams in his first year of university. She had almost finished, with only two exams, when she heard the news: the Taliban government was suspending university education for all female students in Afghanistan.

“I didn’t stop and I kept studying for the exam,” he told CNN on Wednesday. “I went to college in the morning anyway.”

But it was no use. She arrived to find armed Taliban guards at the gates of her campus in Kabul, the Afghan capital, turning away all female students who tried to enter.

“It was a terrible scene,” he said. “Most of the girls, including me, were crying and begging them to let us in… If you lose all your rights and can’t do anything about it, how would you feel?”

CNN is not naming the student for security reasons.

The Taliban’s decision on Tuesday was just the latest step in its brutal crackdown on Afghan women’s freedoms, following the country’s takeover in August 2021.

While the insurgent group has repeatedly claimed it would protect the rights of girls and women, it has in fact done the opposite, stripping away the freedoms they have tirelessly fought for over the past two decades.

Some of its most striking restrictions have been around education, with girls being banned from returning to secondary schools in March. The move devastated many students and their families, who described to CNN their shattered dreams of becoming doctors, teachers or engineers.

For the student in Kabul, the loss of his education was an even greater shock than the bomb attacks and violence he had previously witnessed.

“I always thought we could overcome our sadness and fear by educating ourselves,” she said. “However, this (time) is different. It is simply unacceptable and unbelievable.”

Male students attend a class behind a curtain meant to separate men from women at a university in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on December 21, 2022.

The news was met with widespread condemnation and consternation, and many world leaders – and prominent Afghan figures – urged the Taliban to reverse their decision.

In a statement on Twitter, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – who fled Kabul when the Taliban took power – called the group of illegitimate rulers holding “the entire population hostage”.

“The current problem of women’s education and work in the country is very serious, sad and the most obvious and cruel example of gender apartheid in the 21st century,” Ghani wrote. “I have said again and again that if one girl becomes literate, she changes five future generations, and if one girl remains illiterate, she brings about the destruction of five future generations.”

He praised those in Afghanistan protesting the Taliban’s decision, calling them “pioneers”.

Another former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, also expressed “deep regret” over the suspension. “The country’s development, population and self-sufficiency depend on the education and training of every child on this earth,” he wrote.

Other foreign officials and leaders made similar statements, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US State Department spokesman Ned Price and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karen Decker.

The foreign ministries of France, Germany, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia also criticized the decision.

“Preventing half the population from contributing meaningfully to society and the economy will have a devastating impact on the entire country,” the UN mission in Afghanistan said in a statement.

“Education is a basic human right,” he added. “Excluding women and girls from secondary and tertiary education not only denies them that right, but also denies Afghan society as a whole the benefit of the contributions that women and girls have to offer. It denies future to all of Afghanistan.

Students in Afghanistan say their futures are now in limbo, with no clarity on what will become of their education.

“I still have hope that things will return to normal, but I don’t know how long it will take,” said the student from Kabul. “Now a lot of girls, myself included, are just thinking (about) what’s next, what can we do to get out of this situation.”

“I’m not leaving,” she added, saying she would consider going “somewhere else” if Afghanistan continued to ban female students.

Another 21-year-old, Maryam, is intimately familiar with the dangers of studying as a woman. As a high school student, she had been in the vicinity of an attack on Kabul University several years ago and remembers being evacuated “while bullets were flying over our heads.”

Then, in September, he narrowly survived a suicide attack at the Kaaj educational center in Kabul, which killed at least 25 people, most of whom are believed to be young women. The attack sparked public outrage and horror, with dozens of women taking to the streets of Kabul afterwards in protest.

Maryam, who is being identified by name for her safety, missed the blast by seconds. When he ran back to his classroom, he found the scattered bodies of his friends.

Each death blow cemented his determination not only to pursue his own ambitions, but also the “dreams of all those best friends of mine who died before my eyes,” he said.

Although she was accepted into a high school program weeks after the September bombing, she decided to put her college plans on hold for a year, rather than rebuild the destroyed school from the ground up. She said she wanted to encourage other girls to continue their education.

Taliban security personnel stand guard at the entrance gate of a university in Jalalabad on December 21, 2022.

Now, those dreams have been shattered by Tuesday’s announcement.

“I’m just lost. I don’t know what to do and what to say,” he told CNN. “Since last night, I’ve been imagining all my friends who lost their lives in Kaaj’s attack. What was their sacrifice for?”

“We have to get education; we have given a lot of sacrifice for this. It is our only hope for a better future.”

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