Taliban splits university week for gender separation

Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities appear to be struggling to implement their gender-based segregation policy in academic institutions, with new rules being implemented from this week to split the six-day working week evenly between male and female students, seen by many as yet another step backward step for higher education under the Taliban.

According to the new plan announced by the Taliban-run Ministry of Higher Education and announced initially for Kabul University (KU) and Kabul Polytechnic University, during the female shift no male students will be allowed to enter the university; while during the male shift no female students will be allowed to visit the university.

Female professors will not be allowed to teach male students. Only older male professors will be allowed to teach female students in case of ‘urgent’ need, as there are only a few women professors.

Separate entrances have been marked out for women students and they are not permitted to enter the offices and departments of male professors.

Khalid Dad Amadi Taqa, a spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul, was quoted by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews as saying the plan was based on a proposal from KU.

The split week will subsequently be brought into other universities in the country.

The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate authorities are projecting this new policy as a practical solution to keep universities’ doors open for female students in line with Islamic Sharia principles.

After keeping public universities shut for nearly six months the Taliban resumed the academic activities with their highly criticised gender-segregation policy in February. They first came up with the idea of separate classrooms or sections for female students before the new concept of three dedicated days per week separately for male and female students. This latest move could effectively put an end to any form of co-education.

The Ministry has also decreed that female graduates must attend their graduation ceremonies wearing the hijab, or Islamic veil, and said no videos or photos of the ceremonies would be allowed to be shared on social media, Afghanistan’s Khaama news agency reported earlier in April.

A female student at the journalism department at KU told University World News that Taliban guards at the entrance to the university “inquire viciously” if a female student leaves the university even just a few minutes after the end of the female shift.

Women students have also been warned against taking selfies at university, and the use of smartphones has generally been discouraged she said, adding that “graduating students are not allowed to hold mixed graduation ceremonies”.

Frustration at split week

In conversation with University World News, an array of students and faculty members expressed their frustration at the split-week and full-segregation policy launched this week.

“The teaching and administrative staff are exhausted and left with no time or energy to research and advance their own knowledge or simply have a life of their own under this new regime,” said one KU lecturer. He said the split-week policy meant faculty members will have to repeat their lectures and follow-ups on a wide range of subjects twice a week – once for the male students and then for female students – on different days.

“I hardly see a teacher happy with this policy. If you take a note of the low salaries and other subsequent curbs since the fall (of the democratic government in August 2021) you would note that the teachers are performing their duties just to survive and make ends meet, not with passion and dedication,” said a KU arts faculty lecturer, who wished not to be named for security and privacy reasons.

“This sudden move with huge ramifications is only going to further complicate and damage the education cycle at this crucial juncture,” Professor Mohammad Nizam, a former researcher at the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences, told University World News.

“Instead of advancing on matters such as teaching methods, accessibility for students across the country and catching up with the rest of the world, the education system sadly looks under immense political pressure to focus on the segregation issue,” he added.

Earlier this month the Ministry of Higher Education sent an official letter to all private and public universities saying female university students, lecturers and graduates were no longer allowed to attend mixed meetings with male colleagues, and barring female professors from meetings that include male professors.

Additional pressures

An additional, practical problem with this new plan is the rush to adjust lessons originally designed for a week to be taught and learned in three days, said another Kabul-based academic Abdul Hussain.

“This is going to exhaust not only the girls, but the boys and teachers alike,” he said, adding that the younger generation was already traumatised by the political turmoil and economic hardships.

“Students and teachers would come under unnecessary and additional pressure and it can only lead to frustration, academic failure, and ultimately the ineffectiveness of the entire university education.”

Students said they would struggle to achieve enough course credits to graduate in time, while it is far from clear whether female students will be able to be taught to the same standards as male students at the same university, with younger male professors unable to teach them.

There is already a shortage of teachers at KU and many other universities as dozens of professors fled the country after the Taliban came to power.

Pay cut but obligations doubled

A lecturer at Laghman University in Eastern Afghanistan who did not want to be named, complained of pay cuts at a time when their teaching obligations had doubled. In the past, he added, a lecturer would teach three subjects for six hours. But now they have to teach three subjects for 12 hours, he was quoted by Pajhwok News Agency as saying.

Professors and lecturers at public universities say their salaries and privileges have decreased by 38% since December, at a time when the price of essential goods is rising and job-related obligations have increased in Afghanistan.

Rahimullah Zirak, a lecturer at KU’s journalism faculty, urged the ministry to reconsider its decision to cut teachers’ salaries. With the separation of classes for girls and boys across the country, he claimed, their responsibilities had increased while their current salaries could not meet their needs.

“In the past, teachers at public universities also taught one or half an hour in private universities to supplement their incomes,” Pajhwok quoted him as saying, adding that now the ministry has banned public university professors from teaching at private universities.

The ministry said it repeatedly shared the issue of professors’ salaries with the Economic Commission, which sets salary levels for public employees. Lutfullah Khairkhwa, deputy minister of higher education, said salaries had been reduced for all civil servants.