Female students denied fair chance of university entrance

The final results of the first nationwide university entrance tests known as the ‘Kankor’ organised under the Taliban in Afghanistan, announced earlier this month, have not a single female candidate in the top 10.

Before the Taliban came to power in August 2021, Afghan girls were dominating the Kankor with their hard work and passion for education, coming top of the three previous annual tests for university entry.

Boys from the western city of Herat and capital city Kabul secured the top three slots and will attend state-run medical universities in their respective provinces.

Elham Nabizada, a girl student from the Mawlana Abdullah Hatefi high school in Herat province in northwestern Afghanistan was the highest-scoring girl in the 2022 Kankor, with 355 out of a possible total 360 marks. She was taking the test for the second time, having graduated from high school before the Taliban came to power.

In an interview with Afghanistan’s Khaama Press on 7 November, she said she had been accepted to a medical university but said girls did not score particularly well on this year’s entrance exam. “I have a very bad feeling,” she said.

Abdul Qadir Khamosh, head of the National Examination Authority, said during the announcement of the results on 5 November that this year the capacity to enrol Kankor candidates in government higher education institutions had increased by 20%. He stated that last year about 68,000 students and this year more than 84,000 students were recruited.

The Taliban-controlled state news agency, Bakhtar News Agency, quoted Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi as saying that 124,928 candidates participated, of whom 84,863 were admitted to research universities and 36,200 to other colleges and higher education institutions.

But several critics questioned the statistics, with a drop in the participation of girls in the Kankor this year.

The Kankor took place on the heels of a turbulent year and after a gap of over a year, but with many crippling conditions, opportunities for girls to excel were minimised, education activist and former deputy minister under the previous Afghan government, Atefa Tayeb, told University World News.

Accuracy of results questioned

“The accuracy and transparency of these results is under question,” she said, adding that the Taliban regime’s tactics included prohibiting girls from studying in many fields.

Earlier, the Taliban had acknowledged that girls would no longer be able to choose to study the fields of journalism, economics, engineering, veterinary medicine, agriculture and mining at universities. Atefa said these discriminatory policies reflect the Taliban’s declared mindset of eliminating women and girls from public life.

“Although these subjects did not require very high marks, it shows that they [the Taliban] can do whatever they wish to show that girls are weak and should not go to prestigious universities or get higher marks than boys,” she said.

She also noted that female students who were in the middle of the final year of high school, and who were preparing for the Kankor when the Taliban took over, had been unable to graduate from school, so the female students participating in this year’s Kankor were all from previous cohorts.

“They maybe were not as ready to take exams and participate in preparation classes [for the Kankor] due to restrictions from the Taliban and the psychological situation as well as financial hardships.”

Girls above grade six are still not allowed to go to school, a situation prevailing since the Taliban overran Kabul more than 400 days ago and refused to bow to internal and international pressure to reopen girls’ schools and allow equal rights for women in general in the country.

The Kankor was held in three rounds. According to Hanafi, the first round was held in 33 provinces, and the second and third rounds – which included the miscellaneous exams for those attempting the Kankor a second time provided seats are available – were held in the capital Kabul.

There was no mention of the reason behind elimination of girls from the top slots and denying them the right to choose certain subjects for perusal in the universities.

Systematically excluded

A number of Kabul University faculty members who are unhappy with the Taliban policies told University World News on condition of anonymity that one of the reasons for the absence of girls among the top 10 Kankor performers is that they are being systematically excluded from society, amid discrimination by the Taliban, which is leading to a lack of motivation compared to the past.

According to them, this suffocating and desperate atmosphere would prove even more detrimental with the passage of time.

These fears were echoed at a ceremony in western Herat province bordering Iran where a gathering was organised this week by the local education department to celebrate the achievements of this year’s Kankor top scorers.

On the sidelines of this programme, female students told the local Salam Afghanistan radio station that the closure of girls’ schools above the sixth grade would eventually lead Afghanistan into a phase when there would be no female candidates sitting the Kankor.

“One thing is clear, that the future of the country depends on the education of girls... A mother must have education so that an entire generation can be groomed with education and knowledge,” the radio quoted Tayeba Rostami, one of the female school teachers, as saying.

In a clear sign of resilience under adverse conditions, Mohammad Zia, a student from Kabul’s Kaaj academic centre that came under a deadly terrorist attack days before the Kankor tests, managed to secure the fourth position nationwide despite the grim tragedy.

In a social media post, Zia dedicated his success to his classmates who lost their lives and limbs to the terrorist attack that claimed dozens of lives: “I would be unable to forget that heart-breaking incident, when I witnessed my friends and classmates blown up.”

Fatemeh Amiri was another brave hero of this year’s Kankor who managed to score promising marks despite losing an eye in the attack, securing a seat in the faculty of computer science at Kabul University.

“I’m not entirely happy with the results because I could have done much better, but my eyes were not helping. My left eye still hurts. I couldn’t see the questions properly,” she said.

But these heroic tales could not obscure the absence of many girls sitting this year’s Kankor, with the Taliban regime instead touting an overall increase in the numbers sitting the exam.