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A year and a half ago, on Aug. 15, 2021, when a two-decade war came full circle in Afghanistan, Mahshid Faizi, 21, was a second-year engineering student at Kabul Polytechnic University. That morning, she was in class when her friend’s cell phone rang. Her friend walked outside to take the call, gesturing to Faizi to follow her. In a trembling voice, she told Faizi that Kabul was going to fall soon. Faizi stood in disbelief.
Soon, students from all over campus rushed out of their classrooms and gathered in the courtyard. Everyone was visibly shaken and scared. Faizi hurried home in a frenzy and waited as the events unfolded. A few hours later, the Taliban arrived in Kabul and took over the country. Along with it, they took away the hopes of young women like Faizi.
“I struggle to think of an independent future for myself. With the Taliban in power, I cannot defend my rights or my freedom. I feel like there is a heavy mountain above me,” Faizi told New Lines, in a conversation just three months after the takeover.
It has been over a month since the Taliban announced a ban on university education for women. Powerful visuals of male students walking out in protest in some universities, a young woman protesting alone in defiance of the ban in front of Kabul University and a professor resigning and tearing up his degrees on live television have been seen worldwide. Last month there were also reports of about two dozen women protesting in the streets of Kabul and in Takhar province.
In March 2022, the Taliban banned secondary education for girls, which put over one million girls out of school, according to the United Nations. Since Dec. 20, thousands of university-going Afghan women are now also in limbo. Many were just one semester away from graduation when the ban was announced. In 2020, of the 400,000 Afghans enrolled in universities in the country, 110,000 were women. There is no recent estimate of how many university-bound Afghan women have also been affected by the ban, but the number could be well over 100,000.
Even though Taliban officials repeatedly said that they would not impose harsh restrictions as they did in the past, since they have come into power, women have been systematically excluded from public and political life, with restrictions on education, humanitarian assistance, employment, justice and health services.
Most university-going Afghan women who were born in the last two decades and grew up with more liberties are not accustomed to a restricted way of life. Unable to complete their degrees, they are confined to their homes in the midst of a looming economic collapse and an exacerbated humanitarian crisis.
As of 2022, 24.4 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance and half of them are women and girls, according to the United Nations. International aid has largely been halted since the takeover, with many international nongovernmental organizations suspending their operations. Additionally, most of the country’s foreign assets remain frozen. Afghanistan’s economy contracted by 20.7% in 2021, leading to increased poverty and food insecurity, according to the World Bank. The UN estimates that 95% of Afghanistan’s population faces food insecurity.
While some Afghan women were able to immigrate abroad in the months after the takeover, either alone or with families, others thought they wouldn’t be able to continue their education. But to their surprise many were able to go back to classes within weeks after the takeover, albeit in difficult circumstances, until last month.
On Dec. 22, on Afghan television, just two days after the ban, the Taliban minister of higher education, Nida Mohammad Nadim, said the reasons behind the decision were to stop the mixing of genders in universities and because some courses that were being taught to female students violated Islamic principles. “We told girls to have proper hijab, but they didn’t, and they wore dresses like they are going to a wedding ceremony,” Nadim said. “Girls were studying agriculture and engineering, but this didn’t match Afghan culture. Girls should learn but not in areas that go against Islam and Afghan honor.” Universities would reopen once these problems were solved, he said. Last year, the Taliban promised that they would reopen secondary girls schools, but that still hasn’t happened. Many Afghan women say they have little hope that institutions will reopen.
Before the Taliban took over, Farhat, 22, a law student, participated in moot courts in Afghanistan and wanted to practice law. Her long-term goals also included becoming a diplomat and representing Afghanistan around the world. “Now there is no opportunity for women in Afghanistan to educate themselves or to work,” she said. “I’m starting to feel like being a woman is a crime.”
At university, Farhat lived in a dormitory and worked part time at a radio station. She loved earning her own salary, and getting a paycheck was one of her cheeriest moments. She also had a vibrant social life and frequented cafes and restaurants with her friends. “These were the days we were supposed to enjoy, to learn and to grow,” Farhat said. “The Taliban wanted to take control of everything and they really did do that.”
Farhat had one semester left before graduation. But, as the situation in Afghanistan grew more uncertain, her family decided she should be married. It has been four months since her marriage. Her education was put on hold until she and her family convinced her then-to-be husband and his family to let her finish the final semester. They finally caved and allowed her to go to university, but she could only go to campus three times a week.
When Farhat returned to university, it was in the presence of the Taliban on her campus. Farhat said that they would occasionally walk into classes during lectures to check whether any woman was not following the dress code. The Taliban are allowed to visit department and faculty heads but not classrooms. However, our reporting has confirmed instances when the Taliban have entered classrooms to check on students. One student, whose name has been withheld to protect her identity, recalled an experience at an educational center, where the Taliban entered the classroom to check if women were following the dress code. “To those who weren’t wearing long black clothes they even told them that you are not Muslim.”
“They … came into the classrooms during the exam, and those students who were not wearing the black attire were removed,” said another student.
Women were prohibited from wearing color. They had to wear black clothing and scarves and were told to keep their faces covered. Additionally, last year female graduates were not allowed to celebrate their graduation, but the men were allowed, said Farhat.
Other students that New Lines spoke to narrated similar stories involving the Taliban on university campuses. Their names also are being withheld to protect their identities. These students come from various provinces and said that the way in which restrictions are enforced and the Taliban’s presence on campuses vary from region to region. “Almost everyday the Taliban roamed around and disturbed us,” said one student. “One day one of the Talibs fought with a girl because she didn’t wear a black hijab and black dress.”
“There are families and students who have confirmed that the Taliban would visit and check in some institutions everyday, but there were also institutions where the Taliban would visit more occasionally but still keep a check on,” Pashtana Durrani, a leading education activist and the founder of LEARN Afghanistan, a nonprofit organization, told New Lines. Durrani is currently providing lessons at secret venues for over 250 girls from grades 7 through 12 across Afghanistan.
Under the circumstances, Farhat didn’t feel safe on campus anymore, but she continued to attend her courses because she really wanted to graduate. However, her inconsistent attendance in the last semester prevented her from meeting graduation requirements. Now the ban has been imposed.
There were other restrictions imposed by the Taliban on campuses: female students were only permitted to attend classes and do their work until noon and were not to be seen when men were on campus. Strict separation between men and women was enforced, and female students found it challenging to access university administrative offices or professors during office hours.
Munira, 21, a law student who had two semesters left till graduation, was in disbelief when the ban on higher education for women was officially announced last month. The night that she heard the news, she was preparing for final exams. She was so upset that she threw away her notebook out of frustration. “My only hope was to finish university in Afghanistan,” she said. “Now I feel like I’m losing my sense of self.”
The next day the university allowed them to take the exam, but in the wake of the ban most of the students were deeply disappointed and underprepared. That day, Munira and her classmates said their final goodbyes to each other. Some of their professors, seriously upset for the students, cried with them. “I don’t know if the world will speak up for us or remain silent,” Munira said. “Maybe we no longer have the right to even be human….”
These difficult circumstances have led some women to leave Afghanistan to seek stable futures elsewhere. Amoda Asa, 22, is one of them. Asa was a third-year law and political science student at Badakhshan University in northeastern Afghanistan and was on holiday break when Kabul fell. She had one year left until graduation and wasn’t able to return to university. “Darkness was all around me, and I felt like a bird in a cage within these mental confines,” Asa told New Lines three months after the takeover.
However, six months ago, Asa was able to leave Afghanistan when she obtained a Turkish medical visa. For years, Asa has used prosthetics to walk as the result of an accident that occurred in 2000, when she was seven months old. Asa was home alone lying by the sandali — a traditional form of heating in homes, sandalis are braziers with coal fires in rectangular wooden frames, which are covered in blankets and are where families usually sit, gather and sleep during winter — when the accident occurred.
The prosthetics she had been using for the past five years were in poor condition because her family could not afford new ones, and they were causing wounds on her left leg. However, in Turkey, Asa has been receiving treatment and is now using new prosthetics.
She is optimistic about her future now and wants to remain in Turkey to pursue medicine. She is currently living there, on her own, and has obtained temporary refugee status. “I am separated from my family, but I am learning how a girl can stand on her own feet and use the potential that God has given her,” she said. She is receiving some financial support from family and friends until she is able to work again and has no plans of returning to her country under the current circumstances. “Afghanistan has become an open prison for women and girls,” Asa says.
Like Asa, Faizi has also left Afghanistan. In February 2022, she immigrated to Germany with her family. Since then, Faizi has been sending emails to her university in Afghanistan, requesting that they send her official documents so that she can apply to schools in Germany and complete her engineering program. Despite repeated emails, she hasn’t yet heard back from them. But she is hopeful about the future. “I have a long way to go,” Faizi says. “I am currently in a country where I have the right to choice, education and freedom. … I only wish we would’ve had peace and freedom in our own country so that we would not [have] become immigrants.”
Unlike Faizi and Asa, who were able to leave the country to seek new paths and to build their futures, most young Afghan women, such as Farhat and Munira, are living in an increasingly constrained society in Afghanistan.
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