By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
September 29, 2021 at 3:27 p.m. EDT
Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed comments to Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat, the new chancellor of Kabul University, that appeared on a Twitter account in his name. Subsequent messages on the account asserted the actual user was a Kabul University student who tweeted “fake” words to raise awareness of the Taliban’s policy. The article has been corrected.
KABUL — The Taliban has said that women will be banned from teaching or studying at public universities in Afghanistan until they can be segregated from men — but at Kabul University, students of both genders have been sent home.
The normally bustling campus was deserted and silent on Wednesday. Classes have been suspended; only male staff have been allowed to work on research or office tasks.
The directives reflect a harsh new education policy imposed by the Taliban, in which females may be present on campuses only if they wear traditional Islamic garb and do not share space with male students.
Senior government spokesman Bilal Karimi said authorities were “working on a comprehensive plan to ensure a peaceful environment for female students.” After that plan is finalized, he told The Washington Post in a voice message, “they would be allowed to continue their education.”
Several Kabul University faculty members and students, reached at home Wednesday, expressed deep concern about the hardening Taliban stance on women’s access to public universities. Two weeks ago, the new minister of higher education stated flatly, “We will not allow coeducation.” Some private universities have already switched to divided classrooms.
“It makes me very sad,” said Javeda Ahmed, a longtime professor at Kabul University, who said she taught girls at home during the first Taliban regime. She noted that the university has far fewer female than male teachers, making it impossible to divide them evenly. If men can’t teach the girls, then who will?” she asked. “Where will their knowledge go?”
One social sciences student, who asked to be identified only by her nickname, Fari, for fear of Taliban retaliation, said she has stayed at home for weeks, waiting for the university to allow her to return, but has grown increasingly discouraged. “I had lots of plans for my future, but we are not being told when the doors will be reopening for us,” she said.
Adding to the uncertainty were messages that appeared this week on a Twitter account in the name of Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat, appointed last week as the university’s chancellor. One warned that women would not be able to allowed to attend universities or work.
Some suggested the messages were the work of an impostor. On Wednesday, new tweets appeared on the account saying the user was a 20-year-old student of the law and political science faculty who had been “pretending to be the new chancellor” with “fake” words that he hoped would “awaken Afghans, and the world to put pressure on Taliban to open the schools and universities.”
Even when couched as a measure to protect women, the repeated official emphasis on gender segregation — and the lack of any mention of how long it will take to reconfigure classrooms — has added to growing fear that the Taliban government intends to sharply curtail women’s activities and opportunities, as the group did when it ruled from 1996 to 2001.
Since regaining power after the departure of U.S. forces in August, Taliban leaders have promised they will allow civilians more freedom this time, and in some ways they have. Women have been strolling and shopping in Kabul without covering their faces, which once would have risked a beating by Taliban police. Girls have been allowed to attend school through grade 6; under previous Taliban rule they could not attend at all.
Taliban officials have said repeatedly they will grant women rights “within the framework of sharia law,” but their signals have been mixed and shifting. Initially, they said women should not return to work until the urban environment was secure; conditions today are much safer, but there’s no sign of any policy change.
The new government has revived its once-feared ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — setting it up in the shuttered Ministry of Women’s Affairs — and one Taliban founder recently said the government would resume public amputations and executions for offenses that include adultery.
By taking these measures, the Taliban government risks jeopardizing future economic support from Western donors and governments, which have made the rights of women and girls a litmus test for resuming significant aid. Afghanistan, already one of the world’s poorest countries, is struggling with a stalled economy and a postwar humanitarian crisis. Many people are jobless or displaced by fighting; others have gone unpaid for months.
Taliban officials have denounced foreign governments for imposing their values, especially regarding the role of women, on Afghan society. Karimi said Western criticism of Afghan female education policies “is not a right way to interfere in our internal affairs.”
Many faculty members objected when Ghairat was appointed last week by the Taliban to replace a widely respected academic; around 70 quit their jobs in protest while others supported him. Critics noted that Ghairat studied at Kabul University when it was coeducational, graduating in 2008.
A second aggravation for university staff is that many have not been paid in several months, and the Taliban has shut down faculty and staff unions. With cash running out at Afghan banks, most public employees are receiving only a fraction of their normal pay.
The new gender segregation policy has triggered a mix of reactions from faculty. Some, including men, adamantly oppose the Taliban’s insistence on total separation, saying it will degrade the quality of university education. The new higher education minister, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, has questioned the importance of higher education, pointing out that the new Taliban leaders have succeeded without academic degrees.
Kabul University, founded in 1932, was virtually abandoned during the 1990s, when a civil war destroyed much of the capital and the Taliban took power. After democratic rule returned in 2001, the university was slowly rebuilt and modernized. That effort was strongly supported by U.S. donations, which paid to restore its sharia law library as well as the faculties of medicine and political science. Other public university branches were opened or rebuilt, including in once-isolated provincial cities such as Khost.
“Students tell us there is no future for education under the Taliban,” said one professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “Some have left for Iran or Pakistan, even those in their third or fourth years. They say their degrees will have no value, and anyone now can hold a senior position without a proper education.”
Others said they would prefer coeducational classes but it’s more important that women be able to continue studying, even if they’re segregated from men. Some said that there were problems with male students harassing female classmates, and that the campus had become too polarized in recent years between liberal and religious factions.
“I believe in coeducation and I don’t see a logical reason for separation,” said Shah Kpalwakh, 35, a journalism professor who studied at the university after Taliban rule. He said the institution had acquired extensive resources for teaching modern journalism.
“If the Islamic Emirate wants to bring a new policy and a new curriculum, we will follow it,” he said. “But we hope it doesn’t bring more disorder for all of us.”
Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Ellen Francis in London contributed to this report.