Under the Taliban, university access for girls is drying up

Before the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, she was studying in a private university in the evenings after her busy day job in downtown Kabul that supported her family and especially her two sisters’ school education.

SM (name concealed for security reasons) said she never felt stressed or dejected due to the busy schedule in hope for a much better future for herself and her two younger sisters in the ninth and 10th grades – just years before entering university.

“Our dreams are shattered by the Emirate [Taliban’s Islamic Emirate rule],” she told University World News via phone.

“We moved from west of Kabul to Qala Fatehullah neighbourhood in the city centre to escape Daesh [ISIS] attacks and to continue our education, but the fall of government, the closure of schools and other restrictions mean our life is confined to home only,” said SM who belongs to the country’s ethnic Shiite Hazara minority.

The community has seen public and private schools, universities and learning institutions stormed by armed terrorists over the years, claiming many lives and inflicting life-long trauma.

Within days of capturing Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban dismantled the Women Affairs Ministry and replaced it with the morals policing unit of their Ministry of Enjoining the Good and Forbidding the Evil. The group also shut girls’ schools above grade six on the pretext of Islamic Sharia.

The latest from the group’s higher education official is that reopening of girls’ schools is “not a matter of days or a year” – indicating a much longer or perhaps a permanent closure of the girls’ schools.

“The Ministry of Education has done enough work [for girls’ schools], but some processes are not completed in a year; rather, it takes years and the issue of schools is not a matter of one day and one night. Afghanistan is a traditional country where there are many issues and this is not the place to discuss them in detail,” said Aziz Ahmad Rayan, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Education, last week.

Blocking girls’ path to universities

As per official figures, there are nearly 18,000 schools where around 10 million children, including more than four million girls, are enrolled.

Though the Taliban boast about keeping the doors of universities open for the girls, educators believe this is just a ploy as within a few years there will be no girls passing higher school to enrol in universities.

What is making Afghans such as SM doubt the Taliban’s pledges in this regard is the fact that under the Taliban’s last regime between 1996 and 2001, both primary and secondary schools for girls never reopened.

“My sisters and I are living a life of sorrow and hopelessness. We would not stay here under the Taliban for a single day if we got the chance and the means to flee,” she said.

Last year, head of the National Committee of Examinations, Abdul Qadeer Khamoosh, told University World News that up to 90,000 students, with a large number of female students, participated in the first phase of ‘Kankor’ (the university entrance examination test) and a similar number of students were expected in the second phase.

With its United States model of K-12 (kindergarten to 12th grade) and higher education system, students in Afghanistan have to undergo ‘Kankor’ at the end of the academic year to grab free education opportunities in universities.

“Every year, almost half of the Kankor participants were girls and so were the figures of those entering universities,” Ruh Ullah, a Kabul University lecturer told University World News.

“It is very obvious, if the stream of girls passing higher education is blocked, it is going to impact their entry into the country’s universities, and there would be a day, God forbid, there might be no girl to attend ‘Kankor’,” he said.

A survey by a local non-profit organisation, Salam Afghanistan Media Organization (SAMO), showed last month that with the return to power of the Taliban, some 73% of students in Afghanistan have no more motivation to continue with their studies.

SAMO Editor Gul Mohammad told University World News that the survey was conducted in five major urban centres of Afghanistan and incorporated the views of some 275 students from 18 different universities. “The survey findings have showed that the loss of hope and motivation among the female students was much higher than among the boys.”

Moving towards ‘Islamic’ education

Rights groups have been constantly pushing the Taliban to move away from the systematic oppression and expulsion of women in Afghanistan.

The international rights organisation Human Rights Watch has stated that since taking over Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban has banned girls from secondary education in the vast majority of provinces, and women are banned from most employment. Women in universities face harsh new restrictions. Many female teachers have been dismissed

Meanwhile, the Taliban continue with their agenda of ‘Islamisation’ of the country’s education system.

Karamatullah Akhundzada, deputy minister for Islamic education in the Ministry of Education, told a press conference in Kabul last week that so far close to 20,000 religious scholars have been interviewed for future roles in the academic sphere.

Dealing with the universities’ affairs, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Taliban’s acting higher education minister, has been sanctioned with a ban on international travel for the curbs imposed on girls.

Urging the United Nations to lift this ban, Haqqani told journalists in Kabul this week about his ministry’s “achievements”.

“We have created four new faculties for Islamic studies and 22 disciplines or departments in different places, which are very important to the people of Afghanistan,” he said, while blasting the previous West-backed government for its ‘weak’ education system.

“The education curriculum which we had in the past was not made in a format to compete with the world,” the acting higher education minister told reporters at the press conference held to provide an annual report of the ministry’s activities.

As per the new regulations, the number of compulsory religious classes in universities across Afghanistan will increase from one to three a week, while the matter of reopening of girls’ schools remains in limbo.