Taliban stops female scholarship students at airport

In keeping with their longstanding ban on education for women and girls, Taliban authorities in Afghanistan stopped a group of aspirational female students from boarding a plane to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where they were to take up fully funded scholarships to pursue university studies.

Emirati philanthropist and businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, who offered to take care of all the expenses for the students’ stay and study at the University of Dubai, said in a video message that 100 girls sponsored by him had not been allowed to board the plane to Dubai at Kabul.

“I’m unable to express the disappointment I feel now as the Afghan female students, whom I had provided an educational scholarship, were unfortunately unable to reach Dubai airport this morning to continue their study due to Taliban’s interference,” Al Habtoor said via Twitter (currently rebranding to X) on Wednesday 23 August.

Months of efforts

“We’ve been eagerly anticipating this day for a while; after months of unceasing efforts among @AlHabtoorGroup’s team members and I to secure university admissions, accommodations, transportation, health insurance and an array of comprehensive services aimed at ensuring the utmost comfort and safety for the female students, our aspirations were crushed,” he added.

“The authorities in Afghanistan, without justification, prevented their departure, unjustly curtailing their freedom.”

Amid heavily censored mainstream media in Afghanistan, within hours of his tweet, social media platforms were flooded with secretly captured blurry images of the girls being held at the departure lounge of Kabul International Airport by armed Taliban members.

“Around 8am we received the uncomfortable news that the 100 Afghan women can’t come to Dubai,” Al Habtoor said via Twitter, while requesting all involved parties to step in quickly to help rescue and assist the students.

“All humans have the right to receive education. It is important that the Taliban free them. I hope they will allow them to come to Dubai as soon as possible,” he said.

Male guardian requirement

The voice of an evidently frightened female student can be heard in Al Habtoor’s video-tweet saying: “Right now, we are in the airport but unfortunately the government did not allow us to fly to Dubai … they [Taliban authorities] saw the student visa and the ticket, but did not allow us … some were barred from travelling despite being accompanied by mahram [a male guardian] … I do not know what to do. Please help us. We are so concerned.”

The University of Dubai was contacted for comment, but no information was shared about the criteria and details of the scholarships offered to the Afghan girls.

The Al Habtoor Group earlier said the students who were to leave Kabul had been carefully selected by the University of Dubai “after receiving a huge number of applications”, adding they were selected according to the specific majors available.

Last year, Taliban officials refused to allow Afghan women and girls without a male family escort to cross into Iran and Pakistan for studies, whether travelling by road or air.

In August 2022 some 80 female students of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), which was closed after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, were prevented from flying out of Kabul International Airport to Qatar, where some were to study at the AUAF facilities set up in Doha, and others were to transit to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to enrol at the American University of Central Asia.

A female student at the time said they had gone through all the airport procedures when Taliban officials ordered them to get off the plane. The students were told it was because they did not have mahram, which became a requirement for women travelling on domestic and international flights from March 2022 onwards.

Al Habtoor confirmed on 24 August, a day after last week’s airport incident, that at least three of the women students made it to Dubai. Nothing is known about the fate of the remaining members of the group with scholarships.

“I met three Afghan female students who made it to Dubai safely. They are among those who received the comprehensive scholarship that I provided them with, in collaboration with the University of Dubai,” he said, posting a video of himself talking to the three. He added: “We are hoping to see the rest of their classmates in Dubai very soon.”

Reversion to oppression

The Taliban barred Afghan females from attending universities inside the country in December last year in what was seen as yet another step back towards the full revival of their oppressive regime of the late 1990s. Schools for girls above grade six have been closed for almost two years since the Taliban retook Kabul after the US withdrawal and fall of the West-backed Republic in August 2021.

Afghan educationist and former government adviser Abdul Sami told University World News the chances of the Taliban reforming their ideas on girls and women’s rights were very slim: “If you listen to the arguments of the Taliban leaders justifying all these bans on women you lose hope for any improvement in their behaviour.”

As the drama at the Kabul airport was unfolding on social media, the Taliban authorities in Kabul chose to stay silent, despite repeated inquiries by international media outlets.

Some Taliban leaders, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Abbas Stanekzai, have occasionally spoken out in favour of revising the policies which ban the education of girls and women.

“The Qur’an and Sharia [law] allow women to study and the first verse of the Qur’an also refers to reading. It is the duty of rulers to provide education and work for women,” he told a conference in Kabul last week.

Appeal to international community

Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International slammed the Taliban authorities for preventing the girls from flying to Dubai for studies. “The international community should do more to press the Taliban to end their violations of women’s rights,” HRW said.

Earlier, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation expressed anger and frustration towards the Taliban for their policies towards the women. Neighbouring Pakistan and Iran have on multiple occasions issued statements to deplore the consecutive curbs on women and girls imposed by the Taliban.

Sami said pressure from the Islamic world on the Taliban could be effective. “Their [the Taliban’s] leaders would certainly pay very serious attention to the voices coming from the powerful and rich Gulf nations,” he said.