Ban on women students to impact severely on higher education

The barring of women from all of Afghanistan’s universities, announced by the Taliban in December, could have a severe and lasting impact on the entire higher education sector. Many private universities are likely to shut up shop as the overall number of students declines after the ban.

Shocking the nation, the Taliban – in a widely condemned overnight move on 20 December – issued a decree banning women and girls from attending public and private universities in the country.

“You all are informed to implement the mentioned order of suspending education of females until further notice,” said the letter signed by Minister for Higher Education Neda Mohammad Nadeem, directed at all public and private higher education institutions in Afghanistan.

However, a Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen insisted in December that the ban was not permanent. Women’s admission to universities “has been postponed until a conducive environment is created for their education”, he said.

Girls have been excluded from secondary schools since the Taliban came to power in August 2021. Female students who were in the middle of the final year of high school, and who were preparing for the university entrance exams – known as the Kankor – when the Taliban took over, were unable to graduate from school. So female students participating in the 2022 exam were from previous cohorts.

Experts note that fewer women will qualify for university education even if the ban is temporary, as the Taliban claimed.

The United Nations has said the ban and other restrictions on women aid workers in Afghanistan, also announced in December, would harm all Afghans.

Germany’s federal Development Minister Svenja Schulze, announcing a €7 million (US$7.6 million) scholarship scheme for 5,000 Afghan women students in neighbouring countries, said on 10 January: “Denying half the population educational opportunities robs the country of its future potential. Without well-educated women, there is no way out of hunger and poverty.”

Broad impact

The ban will have an impact on higher education more broadly.

Many private universities say they will not be able to stay open with a prolonged or open-ended ban. Afghanistan’s private universities managed to stay afloat amid the Taliban’s harsh gender-based segregation policies from August 2021. But now private universities say they are in the last desperate moments of survival amid the latest absolute ban on women and girls in universities.

A number of private university managers, academic staff and students, in conversation with University World News, said they were being “cornered” by the Taliban with only one option left – close the institutions in Afghanistan and move their investments and institutions abroad.

Mohammad Karim Naseri, president of the Afghanistan private universities’ association, told University World News he feared that at least 35 universities would shut down if the Taliban did not reverse the ban on women and girls.

“When university doors were closed to women and girls, we were having back-to-back meetings with the Islamic Emirate. As I speak, many private universities are grappling with serious crises and might shut down if the decision is not reversed,” he said.

He added that Afghan education authorities “assured [us] that the sisters would be allowed to return to universities from spring onward [March 2023]”, Naseri said.

Initial concerns that the decree might be fake, because it appeared so radical and was completely unexpected, faded away immediately when Ziaullah Hashimi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Higher Education, tweeted the letter confirming the order.

According to the private universities’ association, some 140 private institutions are currently operating, with some 200,000 students – including around 35% female students. On top of that, private institutions employ thousands of academic staff, enabled by the education sector being built up and flourishing during two decades of international engagement, before the Taliban returned to power. Private universities employ around 25,000 people in total.

A manager of a leading private university chain in Afghanistan, with branches in four major cities, told University World News on condition of anonymity that Taliban interference in academic and administrative affairs had already narrowed the space for educators, even before the blow of the ban.

“From foot soldiers to local commanders and senior leaders, they [Taliban] have been dictating and interfering since the first day [they took power in August 2021], asking for favours, intimidating teachers and students,” said the private university manager in the capital Kabul.

He added that many top academics and bright students had already left the country, creating a vacuum still not filled when the latest ban was announced.

“University managers and owners have been receiving threatening calls and extortion. They [the Taliban] have been objecting to the methods of teaching, teachers’ and students’ dress – there are no limits to their interference.”

Taliban’s tailoring of university syllabus

Within weeks of coming to power, following the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban’s impact was visible on university campuses. Classrooms were seen divided by physical barriers separating young men and women while attending lectures.

Responding to a question regarding changes in the higher education syllabus, Naseri, the private universities’ association president, said consultations were underway with the de facto Taliban authorities on this.

“So far, the only change has been the increase of credit points for Islamic culture subjects from eight to 24, but if there are other changes, we would express our views.”

Ali Ahmad Yousufi, managing director of Kateb University and a leading Afghan educator, told the local Etelat-e-Roz daily that this change meant a reduction of credit points for science and arts subjects, which he described as “unfair and illogical”.

“To be honest, there is no need to include Islamic culture in the curriculum of all faculties because Afghanistan is an Islamic country. In addition to the fact that children grow up in an Islamic environment, without exception, they study religious sciences and the holy Quran for 12 years in schools, in order to enter university. Religious science is a matter of belief,” Yousufi said.

Islamic culture should be replaced with sciences and other practical subjects “so that students are able to meet the needs of the labour market after graduation”, he said.

Pressure to reverse the ban

The Taliban authorities have been under immense pressure to reverse the ban on women and girls attending universities and working in the non-governmental organisations, including from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The Taliban’s Acting Foreign Affairs Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, in a meeting with OIC Special Envoy to Kabul Tariq Ali Bakheet in November, called on the countries of the OIC to invest in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban has shown no signs of a rethink on the ban.

The OIC – a powerful 57-country bloc – was set to meet on Wednesday this week to discuss the issues of the banning of women in higher education and in non-governmental organisations, according to Middle East Eye.

Afghanistan is entering a new period of crisis, the top United Nations envoy for Afghanistan warned. Taliban bans on female education and work for aid agencies will harm all Afghans, said Markus Potzel, deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general.

In a series of tweets, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted that Potzel said this in a meeting with the Nadeem, the Taliban higher education minister.

“@PotzelMarkus called for the urgent lifting of the bans in a meeting today with de facto authorities’ Minister Higher Education, Moh. Nadeem,” tweeted UNAMA.

Days after this meeting, reports emerged in local media suggesting the Taliban might reverse their ban on women and girls. But nothing has been said officially.

Ziaullah Hashimi, the ministry spokesperson, told the local Salam Watandar radio station that he had held special meetings with private university officials in each province and will try to solve their problems.

“We have conveyed their problems to the university liaison committee. We will take the matter to the cabinet of ministers and address the problems,” Hashimi said, referring to a committee under the higher education ministry that handles talks with private universities.

Al-Azhar University in Egypt has said in a statement that closing universities’ doors to girls by the Taliban is “contrary to Islamic Sharia”.

Neighbouring country universities open their doors

Several women’s universities in neighbouring Iran have said they are willing to enrol Afghan women students, virtually or in person, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported this month.

Iran’s Deputy Science Minister Vahid Haddadi Asl said three women’s universities – Alzahra University of Tehran, Kosar University of Bojnord and Hazrat-e Masoumeh University of Qom – will accept Afghan female students for as long as they are deprived of education in their own country.

Alzahra University is ready to enrol up to 50 Afghan women, but the quota will be increased if more dormitories become available, he added.

Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) on 10 January announced the €7 million in special scholarships for Afghan women who have been banned from studying in their home country since the end of December, as mentioned above. Scholarships for some 5,000 Afghan women will be until the end of 2027.

The scholarships for women who have fled Afghanistan will be for study in Pakistan for undergraduate and masters degrees, Kyrgyzstan at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek for masters degrees, or Bangladesh at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong for undergraduate degrees.

“The target group is primarily Afghan women who have been banned from studying in their home country since the end of December,” the BMZ said in a joint press release with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).