Afghan women at university must study in female-only classrooms, Taliban say

Islamic dress code will be compulsory as new regime enforces gender segregation in Afghanistan

The Taliban have announced that women in Afghanistan will only be allowed to study at university in gender-segregated classrooms and Islamic dress will be compulsory, stoking fears that a gender apartheid will be imposed on the country under the new regime.

On Saturday, the Taliban raised their flag over the presidential palace on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, signalling that their work governing the newly formed Islamic emirate had begun. The white banner bearing a Qur’anic verse was hoisted by Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the prime minister of the interim Taliban government.

That same day, Rohullah Azizi, the brother of the former vice-president and anti-Taliban resistance leader Amrullah Saleh, was shot dead at a Taliban checkpoint. Saleh has declared himself the legitimate acting president of Afghanistan, and has been leading the embattled forces resisting the Taliban in Panjshir.

The international community has been keeping a close watch on how the new, all-male, Taliban regime is treating Afghan women in order to gauge just how much the Taliban’s pledges of moderation are a reality.

In one of the first policies announced by the Taliban, the higher education minister, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, laid out a series of rules that will govern women’s access to higher education in Afghanistan.

Speaking at a press conference, Haqqani said women would be allowed to continue their university education, but it would be compulsory to wear a hijab. It was unclear if this meant a headscarf or that women’s faces would have to be covered completely.

Gender segregation would also be enforced at all universities, meaning men and women would have to be taught in separate classrooms. “We will not allow boys and girls to study together,” said Haqqani. “We will not allow co-education.”

Female students will also only be allowed to be taught by women. Haqqani also said the subjects being taught at universities would be reviewed.

The Taliban have promised their new government will be more representative and respectful of the rights of women and girls – though still within an “Islamic framework” – than when they previously held power between 1996 and 2001. Back then, women were prevented from going to school and work, were not allowed out of the house without a male chaperone, and were forced to comply with draconian laws governing “female virtue”.

The full agenda of the Taliban has still not been announced. Nevertheless, as in the previous regime, there is not a single woman in the cabinet, despite promises of an “inclusive” government, and women have been banned from sports. In a recent interview on the TV channel Tolo News, Taliban spokesman Sayed Zekrullah Hashimi said the role of women was to give birth and raise children, adding that it was “not necessary that women be in the cabinet”.

The new education policies mark a significant departure from how universities were functioning previously. Before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August, universities across Afghanistan had been co-educational and women did not have to conform to any dress code. The number of female students in further education had reached record highs, and institutions such as Herat University and Ghalib University in Kabul had boasted more female students than male.

Since the Taliban took power, however, many female students have stayed at home out of uncertainty and fear, and women who took to the streets in protest in recent days demanding equal rights were met with violence and gunfire.

“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 UN secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, told the security council last week.

Haqqani insisted the Taliban did not want to turn the clock back 20 years. “We will start building on what exists today,” he said.

Yet many have questioned the feasibility of the new education rules, in particular how universities and offices would be able to cope with the cost of segregation and separate women-only lessons and spaces. A shortage of facilities and female teachers is already causing problems at universities, with some institutions telling students they will be left with no option but to stop running certain courses for women.

Heather Barr, the co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said the approach of the Taliban was one “where women are, in theory, allowed to continue some of their day-to-day functions, but only under constraints that essentially make them operate in a world that’s almost entirely separate from boys and men”.

She said: “For many universities, and for many women and girls, it’s not going to be feasible, on a financial level and logistical level, to put these things in place. So the consequence will not be just gender segregation, it will be the exclusion of women and girls. Unfortunately I think that’s probably fine with the Taliban.”

On Saturday, in response to the Afghan female protestors who have been taking to the streets to oppose the restrictions on their freedom, the Taliban orchestrated a march of completely veiled women who filled an auditorium at Kabul University’s education centre.

The exclusion of women from speaking to men in offices and universities would contribute to their exclusion from public life more broadly, said Barr. “There are different layers of discrimination to this, which means it will have a really devastating impact on women and girls,” she said.


Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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