Twenty-one-year-old Zamzama Ghazal was at her sister’s graduation ceremony when she heard about the Taliban’s ban on university education for women.
“It was a painful sight,” said Ghazal, a fourth-year medical student at Shifa University in Kabul. “Instead of celebration, there were tears and mourning.” All the girls were crying, hugging and consoling each other.”
Ghazal wanted to be a doctor because her country “is in dire need of female doctors.”
“My childhood dream was to become a doctor. We had many obstacles. There were financial problems. The culture was not very supportive. But I managed to finish school and get into medical school.”
But she “now feels helpless” after the Taliban, the country’s de facto rulers, last week ordered public and private universities to suspend women’s access to universities until “further notice”.
“We worked tirelessly on education. “Now we are deprived of our only hope in this country,” Ghazal said.
The Taliban defend the ban
The Taliban’s higher education minister defended the ban, saying female students “did not comply” with gender-segregated classes and dress codes.
“We instructed the girls to wear the hijab, but they did not comply.” Instead, they wore dresses as if they were going to weddings,” Neda Mohammad Nadeem told Taliban-run state television.
“The girls studied agriculture and engineering in defiance of Afghan honor and Islam,” he added.
The Taliban’s decision to suspend girls’ university education is the latest blow to gains in women’s rights over the past two decades in Afghanistan.
After taking power in August 2021, the Taliban banned girls from secondary education and banned women from traveling long distances without a male companion, working outside and going to public parks.
On Saturday, the Taliban ordered national and international non-governmental organizations to immediately suspend women from work “until further notice.”
The protests continue
Dozens of Afghan women’s rights activists and female students held a protest in some of Afghanistan’s major cities on Thursday, demanding women’s access to education and employment.
Afghan women have protested the Taliban’s repressive rules on them since the group took power in 2021.
There were also reports of students boycotting exams after their female colleagues were not allowed to enter colleges due to a ban on university education for women. Dozens of teachers resigned in response to the Taliban decree.
Hamid Obaidi, a former spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education, told VOA that before the Taliban takeover, about 450,000 female students were enrolled in 39 public and 128 private universities.
He said that women make up 33 percent of students, 14 percent of teaching staff and up to 20 percent of employees at higher education institutions.
“The ministry planned to increase the number of women to… 50% by 2025 in higher education institutions,” Obaidi said. “Unfortunately, the Taliban has returned and once again the doors of schools and universities are closed to women.
Shabnam Salihi, an Afghan women’s rights activist, said the ban on the Taliban would take its toll on women in Afghanistan.
“Depriving women of their basic right to education and learning will push them toward severe depression and mental health problems,” Salihi told Voice of America. “Women were expressing their hopelessness and anger.”
Salihi also said the Taliban’s repression of women had “political motives.”
“The Taliban are using the basic rights of Afghan women as a bargaining chip with the international community,” she said.
No country has recognized the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan government even though the group controls all parts of the country.
The international community has called on the Taliban to honor their promises to respect human rights, including girls’ education.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday condemned new Taliban bans on women’s university education and work for humanitarian agencies.
The United States also condemned the new bans implemented by the Taliban, saying it was considering additional measures to further isolate the group over its “horribly bad” decision to ban girls’ university education.
“My leadership in Washington is considering a series of actions to signal that the Taliban are on the wrong path,” Karen Decker, the head of the US diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, told reporters in a video call from her office in Doha, Qatar.
Ghazal, a young medical student, called on the international community to put further pressure on the Taliban regarding women’s education.
“We can do nothing but hope that the international community will use its power over the Taliban to reopen schools and universities,” she said.
This story was created for the Voice of America Pashto service.