Afghanistan’s Taliban Allow Women to Attend Universities, but Fear Keeps Most at Home

Afghanistan’s Taliban Allow Women to Attend Universities, but Fear Keeps Most at Home

11:45 - Restrictions on women stop short of the prohibitions of the 1990s—how long that will last isn’t clear

Women account for some 60% of the 2,400 students enrolled at Kabul’s Ghalib University, one of many private colleges that sprang up in Afghanistan over the past two decades. When it reopened this week under new Taliban rules, with women and men instructed to attend on alternate days, only 21 female students showed up.

“The women students need to recover their motivation, and their courage. Most of them are too afraid to leave their homes,” said Fatima Sediqi, the head of academic affairs at the university’s school of law and political science. “In the past, everyone went through a dark period. Recalling that time is scaring us, absolutely.”

By the end of the week, the number of female students in attendance grew to more than 200, Ms. Sediqi said. It was still mostly too small to organize effective teaching—especially considering that a large part of the academic staff, particularly women, fled the country after the Aug. 15 collapse of the Afghan republic.

“We are coming from an environment where everyone used to feel comfortable to an environment where we have to follow different principles, like being told what to wear,” she added, pointing at her new black abaya, a loose full-length robe.

The way the Taliban’s reinstated Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, whose new government is composed only of men, treats Afghan women is one of the key factors for governments world-wide as they decide on how to engage the nation’s new rulers, and how and whether to deliver badly needed aid.

For now, the Taliban are taking a relatively moderate approach, at least when compared with their past behavior that elicited world-wide condemnation in the 1990s. How long that will last isn’t clear: At meetings with the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator on Sunday, the Taliban government’s new deputy prime minister, Abdul Ghani Baradar, said that final guidance on women’s rights had yet to be issued by the movement’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, according to people familiar with the conversations.

In their public pronouncements, Taliban leaders say they will respect women’s rights within the framework of Islam, without specifying what that means in practice.

Afghanistan, of course, isn’t the same country that it was when the Taliban first conquered Kabul in 1996. A new generation of Afghan women, educated and confident, is resisting any encroachment on their freedoms. Hundreds have confronted Taliban fighters in street protests in Kabul and other cities in recent days.

“The society has come a long, long way. We now have women who want to stand up for their own rights and will not remain silent if you push them to the corner,” said Omar Zakhilwal, an Afghan politician and former finance minister who returned to Kabul after the Taliban takeover. “The Taliban will have to continuously reassure the women of their treatment and will have to show it in action.”

Aware of the social change since the 1990s, the Taliban have imposed, so far at least, only a fraction of the restrictions that existed at the time. As a general rule, women in Kabul and many other big cities aren’t required to be accompanied by a male relative when outside the home, though some have been harassed by individual Taliban members.

The new Taliban authorities have also allowed private universities like Ghalib to reopen, as long as there are no coed classes and the women wear the Islamic hijab, covering their hair. Almost all women on Afghan streets used to wear headscarves before the Taliban takeover anyway. The all-enveloping burqas, ubiquitous during the 1990s, remain an exception rather than the rule in Kabul. State schools, for boys and girls, have reopened up to the sixth grade across the country.

“We officially allow the girls to be educated with one and only one condition: They must wear the hijab,” Mawlawi Nek Mohammad, head of the Islamic Emirate’s education department in the southeastern Paktia province, said on Afghanistan’s Ariana TV this week. “We’re a Muslim society and hijab is very suitable for us. We need to live in honor.”

In Kabul earlier this month, Taliban education authorities held a ceremony to honor a girl who won the nation’s highest score in university entrance exams. She wore a black abaya and headscarf as she received the prize, made up of a star and the number one.

The U.N. and nongovernmental organizations working in the country have determined that the new Taliban authorities in about two-thirds of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are allowing local female staff to work and move around. The situation is more problematic in a belt of provinces running across the country’s northwest and in parts of the southeast, according to the assessment.

“We are receiving increasing reports where the Taliban have prohibited women from appearing in public places without male chaperones and prevented women from working. They have limited girls’ access to education in some regions,” the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, told the Security Council on Thursday.

In Kabul, women employed by the Afghan government ministries and institutions have been told by the Taliban to work from home until security conditions improve. State universities, for men and women, also remain closed, as do the country’s high schools.

In part, that is because of the country’s financial crisis. With some $9 billion in Afghan central-bank assets frozen in the U.S. and other Western nations, and most foreign aid cut off since mid-August, the Taliban government simply doesn’t have the money to pay the salaries of teachers and university professors. Political considerations, however, likely also play a role.

“The Taliban are afraid that the students will be grouped all together again. They are afraid of demonstrations,” said a professor at Balkh University in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. “It would be very difficult for them to manage the students if they begin protests, which is likely.”

A 23-year-old female sociology student at state-run Herat University in western Afghanistan said she was eager to return to in-person classes this month after the interruption caused by Covid-19 measures earlier in the year. She said she was told this week that it wasn’t clear when, if at all, her course would resume because four of the department’s six teaching staff had fled the country.

“We have worked for 20 years for gender equality, women’s rights and justice,” she said. “Now, it looks like we have to start everything again from zero.”

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