Afghanistan’s main universities reopened six months after the Taliban returned to power, but only a handful of women returned to now separate classes.
Most girls’ secondary schools and all public universities were closed following the Taliban takeover on August 15, raising fears that women could be excluded from education – as happened under the first reign of the Taliban, from 1996 to 2001.
The Taliban insist they will allow girls and women to be educated this time around – but only in separate classes and according to an Islamic curriculum. Classes for male and female students will be held at different times, according to the ToloNews.
“I am happy that the university has resumed…we want to continue our studies,” said an English major who asked to be identified only as Basira.
But she said there was a shortage of speakers, adding: “Maybe because some have left the country.”
Tens of thousands of Afghans have left the country, including teachers, after the collapse of the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani following the march of Taliban fighters on the capital Kabul in mid- August.
Some public higher education institutions in the south of the country reopened last month, but on Saturday Kabul University, the oldest and largest with a student body of around 25,000 last year, reopened without fanfare – and few students present.
At least 19 universities and educational institutes have been reopened, Kabul-based ToloNews reported, citing the Ministry of Higher Education.
Basira said there were “some difficulties” – including students being reprimanded by Taliban guards for bringing their mobile phones to class.
“They didn’t behave well with us…they were rude,” she said.
Another English student, Maryam, said only seven women attend her class.
“Before, we were 56 students, boys and girls,” she said.
Taliban guards denied journalists access to the sprawling campus and did not allow media crews to linger near the entrance.
No students at Panjshir
A similar picture has emerged from campuses across the country, although no students have returned to class at Panjshir University.
“I don’t know if they will come tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or not,” Professor Noor-ur-Rehman Afzali said.
Panjshir was the last province to fall to the Taliban last year, and Jaber Jibran, a faculty director, said several classrooms destroyed in the fighting had still not been repaired.
The Taliban has previously said female students should wear a black abaya over their body and a hijab over their head, but did not insist on the full-coverage burqa which was compulsory under their previous regime.
Several students, however, appeared dressed on Saturday as they would have been before the Taliban takeover, with a simple shawl covering their heads.
“I’ve never worn a hijab before…it’s new to me,” said Sohaila Rostami, a biology student in her final semester at Bamiyam University.
“I wore jeans and other normal clothes. It will be difficult for me to observe the hijab,” she told AFP.
In Herat, the ancient Silk Road city near the Iranian border and once one of the most important intellectual centers in the Islamic world, students have also complained about the lack of tutors.
“Some of our professors have also left the country, but we are happy that the doors of the university are open,” said Parisa Narwan, an arts student.
In Kabul, student Hasenat said campus life for women is now very different from before.
“We are told not to leave our classes,” she told AFP.
“There is no more cafeteria…we are not allowed to go to the university courtyard.”
No country has yet recognized the new Taliban regime, which imposed several restrictions on women, including barring them from many government jobs.
Western sanctions and the freezing of Kabul assets worth billions of dollars following the capture of the Taliban have pushed the Afghan economy towards near collapse. The UN has warned of an impending humanitarian disaster with more than half of the country’s population facing food insecurity.