Call for higher education reform after student suicide

The tragic suicide by a female student at Afghanistan’s Kabul University recently has unveiled major deficiencies in the war-ravaged country’s higher education system, forced the resignation of the higher education minister, and prompted calls for root and branch higher education reform.

Zahra Khawari, 25, who was found dead on 19 November, was in her fifth year at the faculty of veterinary medicine at Kabul University. Unconfirmed reports said she had taken poison. According to friends and classmates, she took her own life after her final year dissertation was rejected at least three times for ‘unknown’ reasons by her dissertation supervisor Gul Mohammad Tanin, the head of the faculty.

Subsequent events after this tragic incident included a protest march at Kabul University two days after Khawari’s death and a social media storm of complaints against the higher education system by students and intellectuals, which led to the resignation of the Minister for Higher Education Abdul Latif Roshan – who had only been in the position since June.

According to Pajhwok, Afghanistan’s news agency, on 21 November Tanin and the head of the dormitory had been “taken into police custody”.

Roshan cited personal and political reasons for his resignation on 22 November, according to Pajhwok. A new acting higher education minister Najibullah Khwaja Umari was appointed on 25 November, amid calls for the government to reform the system.

Students claimed Khawari was discriminated against for being a woman, and a member of the Hazara minority. She was from a poor farming family in Daykundi Province in Central Afghanistan and had conducted research in her home town on sheep breeding for the dissertation, a topic rejected by her supervisor. She then switched to a dissertation on chicken breeding using a container for the chickens on the campus grounds.

In a system riddled with corruption there have been unsubstantiated suggestions by students that Khawari may not have paid the requisite 'bribes' for her dissertation to receive a pass mark.

Whatever the specific facts surrounding Khawari’s case, her suicide has struck a chord with students who say lecturers behave in a ‘dictatorial’ manner towards many students who had to overcome considerable disadvantages and financial difficulties to get through the competitive entrance examinations to enter the country’s top university.

"Whatever she went through, all of us in the public universities are witnessing [the same]. Some of us can bear it or get over it with bribes or influence, but she protested against it with her life," Mohammad Ali, one of the protesting students told University World News.


Kabul University students demanded a joint investigation by a committee that includes students, members of Khawari’s family, university faculty, the head of Kabul University and the ministry of higher education.

On Saturday 26 November, the university’s chancellor, Hamidullah Farooqi, said a fact-finding committee had been tasked with monitoring the police investigation and stressed that the suicide should not be politicised – he was referring to allegations of corruption and harassment surrounding the case.

“The suicide of Zahra Khawari is a criminal case; it has been investigated in light of the rules and regulations by the legal and security institutions. Kabul University and a dedicated committee are committed to sharing their findings with the public,” he said.

Among those who criticised the system on social media and revealed the sorry state of the system were Shaharzad Akbar, the country director of Open Society Institute in Afghanistan; Wahid Omar, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Italy; and Khosrow Mani, a novelist residing in France. In a Facebook post, Ambassador Omar said he had to defend his thesis on ‘Transitional Justice’ in front of a professor who was from the faculty of agriculture.

Younus Toughyan, a lecturer at Kabul University, said in a widely circulated Facebook post in Pashto, one of the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, that Khawari’s death was not the first scandal at the university. He pointed to the sexual harassment of women students and said it was well known that lecturers received bribes and even when evidence was shared on Facebook, none of them were arrested.

Lecturers have discriminated against students based on language, race and ethnicity, he said, adding: “I am ashamed to work with them.”

It is feared this incident could further hamper women and girls’ efforts to get an education in the country, where, according to the Human Rights Watch, the proportion of female students is now falling in some parts of the country.

In a 130-page report released last month, Human Rights Watch noted that 3.5 million Afghan children are out of school, 85% of them girls. The report I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick: Girls’ access to education in Afghanistan, describes how, as security in the country worsens and international donors disengage from Afghanistan, progress made towards getting girls into school has stalled.