It was late evening in Kabul, and Sabra*, a fourth-year medical student, saw a WhatsApp message appear on her phone. In a university chat group for 38 classmates, a friend had shared a news report suggesting the Taliban had banned women from higher education. “Girls, what’s going on here?” the friend wrote. “Is it true?”
On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s ministry of higher education issued a letter to all government and private universities, ordering an indefinite ban on university education for women. The country’s hardline Islamist rulers had already banned most female Afghan teenagers from secondary school education.
Sabra said the news felt like cold water. “I studied with all my heart for four years,” she said, speaking by telephone from Kabul. “I only had one year left to graduate from university.”
The decision was quickly and globally condemned, with the International Rescue Committee denouncing the ban as a “chilling step backwards for Afghanistan”. The US government said it was unacceptable, with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announcing that he was “deeply dismayed”.
Rina Amiri, a US special envoy for Afghan women and girls, said the ban removed any doubt that the Taliban were reverting to the extreme policies they enacted in the 1990s, when they last controlled Afghanistan.
“The world must reject, as Afghans have, that this is about culture or religion. In Afghan history, only the Taliban have enacted policies forbidding girls’ education. In no Muslim-majority country, in no place in the world, are girls denied an education,” Amiri wrote on Twitter.
“We are at an inflection point. As a global community, we must take a firm stand against these extreme policies. Failing to do so could embolden the Taliban, inspire hardliners elsewhere [and] imperil the rights of women, girls and at-risk populations far beyond Afghanistan.”
On Wednesday morning, staff and security at universities in Kabul were turning away female students who had arrived to study. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, video footage showed groups of men and women protesting outside a campus.
Sabra said she had heard rumours months ago that the Taliban would ban women from higher education but said she could not believe it. “Was this not my right as a girl who came here … with money from embroidering and weaving carpets and who wanted to become a doctor?
“It’s 4:30 in the morning Kabul time, and I could not sleep for a moment tonight,” she said. “I can’t hold back my tears.”
Another female student wrote on Facebook she was also having trouble sleeping. Sakina Sama said it had taken three years after leaving secondary school to persuade her father to agree to let her enrol in a university, only to now be banned by the government.
“Being a girl is a heavy crime and tonight I want to curse my creator for creating me so that I can be so miserable and humiliated,” she wrote. “No words can express my anger tonight. Goodbye life.”
A number of Afghan civil and women’s rights activists abroad have issued a joint statement calling for the Taliban to reverse “this medieval crime” that will “impose absolute isolation on Afghan women and girls and expose women to violence, poverty and exploitation”.
Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, who is now in exile, wrote on Twitter that the Taliban sought with the ban “to keep society in the dark because they consider their survival and growth dependent on the ignorance of the young generation”.
Another female student, Zainab Rezaei, 23, learned about the closure of universities to girls through Facebook. Enrolled at a private university in Kabul, Rezaei said that in the past year she comforted her sister, who is in grade 11 and was not allowed to go to school after the earlier ban on girls. But now she is also stuck at home.
“I was at my aunt’s house tonight,” she said, adding that her mother called her to tell her to stay strong. “I was very sad and I don’t know what our future will be. I feel full of hatred.”
Rezaei, whose father died three years ago, said she had worked hard to continue her education but the Taliban had now taken away this right.
“My heart hurts. All my hard work is worth nothing,” she said. “No matter how hard we girls work, it doesn’t pay off.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity