New Taliban chancellor bars women from Kabul University

General manager Parisa Khazan with students in a classroom at the Naswan Wahdat Girls School in Kabul on Sept 15, 2021.
General manager Parisa Khazan with students in a classroom at the Naswan Wahdat Girls School in Kabul on Sept 15, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (NYTIMES) - Tightening the Taliban's restrictions on women, the group's new chancellor for Kabul University announced on Monday (Sept 27) that women would be indefinitely barred from the institution either as instructors or students.

"I give you my words as chancellor of Kabul University," Mr Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat said on Twitter on Monday. "As long as a real Islamic environment is not provided for all, women will not be allowed to come to universities or work. Islam first."

The new university policy echoes the Taliban's first time in power in the 1990s, when women were only allowed in public if accompanied by a male relative and would be beaten for disobeying, and were kept from school entirely.

Some female staff members, who have worked in relative freedom over the past two decades, pushed back against the new decree, questioning the idea that the Taliban had a monopoly on defining the Islamic faith.

"In this holy place, there was nothing un-Islamic," one female lecturer said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, as did several others interviewed by The New York Times. "Presidents, teachers, engineers and even mullahs are trained here and gifted to society," she said. "Kabul University is the home to the nation of Afghanistan."

In the days after the Taliban seized power in August, officials went to pains to insist that this time would be better for women, who would be allowed to study, work and even participate in government.

But none of that has happened. Taliban leaders recently named an all-male Cabinet. The new government has also prohibited women from returning to the workplace, citing security concerns, though officials have described that as temporary. The original Taliban movement did that as well in its early days in 1990s, but never followed up.

Two weeks ago, the Taliban replaced the president of Kabul University, the country's premier college, with Mr Ghairat, a 34-year-old devotee of the movement who has referred to the country's schools as "centres for prostitution".

It was another grave blow to an Afghan higher education system that had been buoyed for years by hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, but has been reeling since the group's return to power.

"There is no hope, the entire higher education system is collapsing," said Mr Hamid Obaidi, a former spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education who was also a lecturer at the Journalism School of Kabul University. "Everything was ruined."

Tens of thousands of public university students are staying home because their schools are closed. The American University in Afghanistan, in which the US invested more than US$100 million (S$135 million), has been abandoned completely and taken over by the Taliban.

Professors and lecturers from across the country, many of whom were educated overseas, have fled their posts in anticipation of more stringent regulations from the Taliban. In their wake, the government is appointing religious purists, many of whom have minimal academic experience, to head the institutions.

In a symbolic act of resistance, the teachers union of Afghanistan last week sent a letter to the government demanding that it rescind Mr Ghairat's appointment. The young chancellor was also criticised on social media for his lack of academic experience.

A student looking at the ruins of a classroom at Kabul University in Kabul on Nov 3, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Reached by the Times, some of his classmates described him as an isolated student with extremist views who had problems with female classmates and lecturers.

"I haven't even started the job yet," Mr Ghairat said, rejecting concerns about his appointment in an interview with the Times. "How do they know if I am qualified or not? Let time be the judge," he said, adding that his 15 years working on cultural affairs for the Taliban made him a perfect candidate for the job.

The Taliban's chief spokesman, Mr Zabihullah Mujahid, tried to soften Mr Ghairat's announcement that women could not return to Kabul University, telling the Times, "It might be his own personal view."

But he would not give any assurances as to when the ban on women would be rescinded, saying that until then, the Taliban were working to devise a "safer transportation system and an environment where female students are protected".

Although some women have returned to class at private universities, the country's public universities remain closed. Even if they reopen, it appears that women will be required to attend segregated classes, with only women as instructors. But with so few female teachers available - and many of them still publicly restricted from working - many women will almost certainly have no classes to attend.

Hundreds of professors or students are still trying to get out of Afghanistan. Many have been contacting foreign organisations they were associated with in the past and pleading for sponsorship so they can be evacuated.

In Washington, a senior State Department official signalled increasing irritation with the Taliban on Monday over concerns that people who are deemed at high threat of retaliation - including women who have partnered with American officials or training programmes - have not been allowed to freely travel or leave the country.

The official said that included about 100 American citizens and legal US residents who have indicated they want to leave, and are waiting in Kabul for a flight out.

The trauma facing Afghanistan's students was encapsulated in the experience of a 22-year-old Kabul University student who spoke to the Times last week.

In November, with the capital still in the hands of its pro-Western government, gunmen from the Islamic State group walked into a classroom in Kabul University and opened fire, killing 22 of her classmates. After escaping through a window to save her life, she was shot in the hand while running from the building.

She was left traumatised and with chronic pain, but she still continued to attend classes. By August, when Taliban soldiers entered Kabul, she was only months away from receiving her degree. But now the Taliban decree appears to have rendered her dream impossible.

"All the hard work I have done so far looks like it is gone," she said. "I find myself wishing I had died in that attack with my classmates instead of living to see this."