"I have no aspirations for the future" - female university students on Taliban restrictions
AW talks to five female students about the reality of attending university as women in the ‘new’ Afghanistan.
25 Mar 2022
Image: Michael Foley
When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last August, they assured the international community that things would be different to their last stint in power in the 1990s - when women were banned from education and work.
This time, the group claimed women’s rights would be respected - but within the framework of their interpretation of islamic law.
Last year, after the usual summer break, universities and high schools across Afghanistan remained shut, sparking fears that girls and women would once again be barred from learning. While some high schools reopened for boys in the months that followed, it wasn't until February that universities opened their doors again, but with strict rules for female students.
Afghan Witness (AW) spoke to five female students at public universities in Kabul, Balkh, Baghlan and Samangan provinces, who said that the restrictions, coupled with a lack of professors to teach classes, has negatively affected their morale, as well as the quality of their education.
The names of all interviewees in this article have been changed.
Male and female students segregated
In September, the Taliban’s higher education ministry announced that women would be allowed to study at university, but not alongside men.
The decision marked a change from the accepted practice before the Taliban’s return, where men and women co-studied. The interviewees told AW that regulations now mean female students attend classes from 8:00 am to 11:15 am, while male students come between 11:30 am and 3:30 pm.
To ensure there is no mingling, the Taliban have placed ‘special guards’ at some of the universities’ gates. “Two Taliban guards along with a dog chase the girls and make them leave the campus before boys enter the university,” says Sajida, a student at Kabul University.
“Neither the female lecturers nor the students are allowed to leave the university out of the specified time slot, even if they seriously need to leave,” adds Laila, who studies at Samangan University.
Tamana, a student from Balkh University, describes the guards as “ill-mannered”. She says they shout at female students for the slightest “mistakes” and accuse them of promiscuity.
“If it was not my last year and I was not about to graduate, I would not go back to university,” Tamana says.
Movement within the university campus is also restricted according to Sajida, who says students are warned through letters to refrain from wandering outside of classes.
“The authorities send official letters almost every day ordering female students not to walk in the campus, not to commute to the shops and canteens, and many other restrictions,” Nargis from Baghlan University says.
AW also heard from interviewees that students have been notified not to take photos and selfies within the university campus.
Laila says students at Samangan University have been informed that they will soon be required to leave their phones at home. “We have been told that from the next semester, we will need to strictly abide by all the rules and will not be allowed to take our mobile phones with us."
Strict dress code
Female students at some universities have been ordered to adhere to stringent regulations concerning hijab, while in others, authorities have not issued any official rules but organise meetings with department heads and show up to classes asking female students to adhere to the Islamic Hijab - the Taliban’s interpretation of which remains unclear, as many Afghan women already wear headscarfs.
“We were told to wear long black dresses, but we resisted,” says Tamana. “On my first day attending the university, we were in class when we heard a girl screaming loudly. We wondered what had happened, but neither our lecturer nor we were allowed to check on the girl and see what the matter was. We later found out that she was being punished for not complying with the authorities' rules on hijab.”
Sajida tells AW that the Taliban authorities often warned them through their department and faculty officials that if they did not observe 'full hijab', they would close the universities to female students again. Laila from Samangan University says that the Taliban authorities had told them to wear long black robes, completely cover their faces - including eyes - and not to wear high heels and colourful clothing.
In theory, these regulations mean that female lecturers should be assigned to teach women, but in practice, this is not possible as Afghanistan is facing a ‘brain drain’. Not only have female lecturers left the country, but male lecturers too.
Last month, the BBC reported that 229 highly qualified lecturers and professors from Afghanistan’s three major universities, including Kabul, had left the country since the Taliban takeover.
Due to the shortage, the Taliban have been forced to allow some male teachers to be temporarily assigned to teach female students.
In September, Higher Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani claimed there are enough female teachers available and that alternatives will be found when this is not the case. "It all depends on the university's capacity," he said. "We can also use male teachers to teach from behind a curtain, or use technology."
To fill the shortage, the Taliban have also recruited new lecturers, mostly those with less or no experience to replace those who have left.
“The newly appointed lecturers are not experienced enough and are mostly absent. They only show up on examination days,” says Tamana.
According to Mina, who studies at Kabul University, around twenty top lecturers of one faculty in Kabul university had abandoned their position and left Afghanistan in recent months.
Nargis from Baghlan university echoes this, saying her entire faculty now has only two female lecturers.
Low attendance, low morale
While the reopening of universities has been long-awaited, students returning to their classes last month found they were not the same. In addition to the absence of many lecturers, AW was told that student attendance rates were also low compared to before, with some students lacking motivation for their studies.
“Many teachers have left, others are not paid, or paid less, so we don’t see any seriousness in our studies,” says Laila from Samangan university.
“There are few teachers [but] much pressure and restrictions. They have turned the university into a military camp, controlling every move we make and warning they will close down the university if they see us without Hijab,” says Sajida.
Several of the students AW talked to mentioned classmates dropping out or delaying their studies due to their families being scared, or because of the Taliban’s restriction on travel for females, which means that women must have a chaperone to travel distances over 72 km.
Despite the Taliban suggesting their rule would be ‘softer’ this time around, restrictions so far suggest otherwise, and while women are able to study, the quality of the education they receive, and the environment they receive it in, has left many female students with little hope.
“I have no aspirations for the future under this regime,” says Tamana. “We women have no career prospects under the Taliban regime.”