ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Taliban bans university education for Afghan girls, drawing global condemnation

US warns move violates previous commitments, will have ‘concrete costs;’ UN ‘deeply concerned’ at development; Kabul regime releases 2 US citizens it was holding

Afghan students line up at one of Kabul University's gates in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 26, 2022. (Hussein Malla/AP)
Afghan students line up at one of Kabul University's gates in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 26, 2022. (Hussein Malla/AP)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers banned university education for women nationwide on Tuesday, as the hardline Islamists continue to crush women’s right to education and freedom.

Despite promising a softer rule when they seized power last year, the Taliban have ratcheted up restrictions on all aspects of women’s lives, ignoring international outrage.

“You all are informed to immediately implement the mentioned order of suspending education of females until further notice,” said a letter issued to all government and private universities, signed by the Minister for Higher Education, Neda Mohammad Nadeem.

The spokesman for the ministry, Ziaullah Hashimi, who tweeted the letter, confirmed the order in a text message to AFP.

Washington condemned the decision “in the strongest terms.”

“The Taliban should expect that this decision, which is in contravention to the commitments they have made repeatedly and publicly to their own people, will carry concrete costs for them,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.

The ban on higher education comes less than three months after thousands of girls and women sat university entrance exams across the country, with many aspiring to choose teaching and medicine as future careers.

The universities are currently on winter break and are due to reopen in March.

A member of the Taliban security forces in Kabul on December 12, 2022. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP)

After the takeover of the country by the Taliban, universities were forced to implement new rules including gender-segregated classrooms and entrances, while women were only permitted to be taught by women professors or old men.

Most teenage girls across the country have already been banned from secondary school education, severely limiting university intake.

Journalism student Madina, who wanted only her first name published, struggled to comprehend the weight of Tuesday’s order.

“I have nothing to say. Not only me but all my friends have no words to express our feelings,” the 18-year-old told AFP in Kabul.

“Everyone is thinking about the unknown future ahead of them. They buried our dreams.”

The country was returning to “dark days,” added medicine student Rhea in the capital, who asked that her name be changed.

“When we were hoping to make progress, they are removing us from the society,” the 26-year-old said.

‘A fundamental human right’

The United Nations is “deeply concerned” by the order, said Ramiz Alakbarov, UN chief’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

“Education is a fundamental human right. A door closed to women’s education is a door closed to the future of Afghanistan,” he tweeted.

The Taliban adheres to an austere version of Islam, with the movement’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his inner circle of Afghan clerics against modern education, especially for girls and women.

But they are at odds with many officials in Kabul and among their rank and file who had hoped girls would be allowed to continue learning following the takeover.

“There are serious differences in the Taliban ranks on girls’ education and the latest decision will increase these differences,” a Taliban commander based in northwest Pakistan told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In a cruel U-turn, the Taliban in March blocked girls from returning to secondary schools on the morning they were supposed to reopen.

Several Taliban officials say the secondary education ban is only temporary, but they have also wheeled out a litany of excuses for the closure — from a lack of funds to time needed to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines.

Since the ban, many teenage girls have been married off early — often to much older men of their father’s choice.

Several families interviewed by AFP last month said that coupled with economic pressure, the school ban meant that securing their daughters’ future through marriage was better than them sitting idle at home.

International pressure

Women have also been pushed out of many government jobs — or are being paid a slashed salary to stay at home. They are also barred from traveling without a male relative and must cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa.

In November, they were also prohibited from going to parks, funfairs, gyms, and public baths.

The international community has made the right to education for all women a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the Taliban regime.

“The international community has not and will not forget Afghan women and girls,” the UN Security Council said in a statement in September.

In the 20 years between the Taliban’s two reigns, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though the country remained socially conservative.

The authorities have also returned to public floggings and executions of men and women in recent weeks as they implement an extreme interpretation of Islamic sharia law.

Afghan women pass next to a Taliban fighter in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

An economic crisis in Afghanistan has only worsened since the Taliban returned to power following the hasty withdrawal of United States-led foreign forces last August.

Washington froze $7 billion of Afghanistan’s assets held in the US while billions in foreign aid that helped prop up the country has vastly reduced.

US prisoners freed

The US State Department also said Tuesday that the Taliban had freed two Americans in detention in Afghanistan.

“This, we understand, to have been a goodwill gesture on the part of the Taliban. This was not part of any swap of prisoners or detainees. There was no money that exchanged hands,” Price told reporters.

The two Americans were released to Qatar, which has played a key role in supporting US interests in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.

Price said that confidentiality rules forbade him from offering more details on the two Americans.

CNN reported that one of them was Ivor Shearer, a filmmaker arrested in August with his Afghan producer — whose fate is unclear — while filming the site of a US drone attack that killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

“The irony of them granting us a goodwill gesture on a day where they undertake a gesture like this to the Afghan people, it’s not lost on us,” Price said. “But it is a question for the Taliban themselves regarding the timing of this.”

The US has repeatedly condemned the Taliban’s track record since the militants swept back to power last year when US President Joe Biden pulled out troops, leading the two-decade-old Western-backed government to collapse.

But the Biden administration said that the Taliban were largely helpful during the takeover in letting out US citizens.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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