Taliban moves to entrench policy banning women from HE

The Taliban-run higher education ministry in Afghanistan recently announced that at least 850 new teachers were appointed in public universities last year, including 550 teachers for ‘Islamic culture’. Meanwhile, the first male-only university entrance exam results have been announced – in a move that shows clear defiance of internal and international calls to end the exclusion of women and girls in education.

During a high-profile ceremony in the presence of top Taliban leaders on 4 September at the Government Information and Media Centre in Kabul, the results of the university entrance exam, known as the ‘Kankor’, were announced for those winning seats in public universities. This year’s Kankor was the second to be held since the Taliban came to power in August 2021 but the first to be all male.

Female students were allowed to participate in the 2022 Kankor, and mainly consisted of those who completed high school before the Taliban came to power. However, they were later restricted to certain subjects in universities, deprived of the right to apply for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

Within weeks of the beginning of the 2022 academic year, all female students across the country were directed to quit and stay at home.

This year there was no pretence of women being equal and having the right to study when the results of the all-male 2023 Kankor were announced.

Ignoring the absence of thousands of female candidates for the first time under the Taliban’s second rule, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, higher education minister, declared the number of applicants to universities had “increased” and efforts had been made to ensure that no one was left without results.

Haqqani said 84,234 students participated in this year’s competition: “In total, the number of successful candidates [for university entrance] this year is 78,511 and 44,336 candidates will head to higher education institutions.” The examination department said the number going to university was around 3,497 more than the previous year.

Drop in Kankor candidates

Even so, this figure is much reduced from previous years and even below the government’s own estimates for this year. Fazal Haq Hashimi, the spokesman of the National Examinations Authority, said in July, in advance of the exam, that 150,000 Kankor entrance forms had been distributed for the 1402 (2023) entrance examination and 106,617 would be enrolled in higher and semi-higher education.

He did not mention the exclusion of female candidates, despite calls to allow them to sit the exam.

Official figures put the total number of applicants for the 2020 Kankor – the last held before the Taliban came to power – at 179,928, including about 80,000 girls. Of the total number of candidates, 68,930 were successful in obtaining seats in public universities in 2020 and 11,435 in other higher education institutions.

No Kankor was held in 2021, but the first Kankor under Taliban rule was held in October 2022 after being postponed from July, and had 250,000 candidates – including those who could not sit the test in 2021. An estimated 141,000 qualified to continue to higher studies, according to early statistics which were not officially updated by the government.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education has refused to talk about the entrance examination of female students, Afghanistan’s Tolo News agency reported.

Kabul-based student Maleka Ahmadzai told University World News she had been once again reminded by the Taliban that women and girls are ‘worthless’.

“In spite of all the restrictions and bleak pessimism all over the country, I studied for several months to prepare for the Kankor. I was 80% ready and sure that I would succeed in the Kankor and study medicine at Kabul Medical University,” she said, unsure if she would continue on this path or give up on her dreams.

Parvana Rezaey, another student who was supposed to participate in the entrance exam this year, said she had secured “shining marks” in the previous Kankor. She was forced to quit studies but wanted to try her luck again. “So, in total I spent two whole years preparing for the entrance exam. I often feel very inferior these days and this time the Kankor tests, without any girl participating, has made it worse for me,” she said.

More religious instruction

The government officially declared that no participants failed in this year’s entrance exam, which some have interpreted as admitting that the number of places at public universities is higher than the number of those participating in the Kankor. Commentators have estimated that around one-third of university seats will remain vacant, in part due to the absence of female students.

But even without women students, men entering universities will see big changes. Officials of the Higher Education Ministry said while presenting their annual report that hundreds of Islamic culture teachers had been hired at university.

Deputy Minister for Higher Education Lutfullah Khairkhwah told a press conference in Kabul that religious sciences were previously taught less widely in universities. However, with the increase in credits on Islamic culture in the curriculum, the number of teachers has also increased, according to Khairkhwah.

“We have 6,000 teacher positions vacant in Afghanistan, of which 200 to 250 teachers have gone abroad, and recently we have recruited 850 teachers to government universities, of which 550 are the Islamic culture teachers,” he said.

Professor Jamal Uddin, a Kabul-based academic figure, told University World News that the higher education situation is affecting boys as well, not just girls. “Whoever gets a chance is fleeing the country, especially the youth, who see no future in this country under the Islamic Emirate [Taliban],” he said.

He added that the appointment of Taliban-affiliates as teachers in universities has severely impacted the standard of studies. “If the Taliban continue with their current policies in the education sector, we will have to bear tremendous and unbearable consequences for generations to come,” said Uddin.

Official figures suggest more than 470,000 male students are currently studying in the country's universities.