Afghan university students returned to classes this Monday (6), for the first time since the takeover of power in the country by the fundamentalist Taliban group, in a different context: with barriers and strategies to separate male and female students.
In the first Taliban government, between 1996 and 2001, women were prevented from studying and working. Now, under multiplied international scrutiny, the extremist group has pledged moderation and said women’s rights will be respected “in accordance with Islamic law.” There are a lot of doubts about what this means, and there have been reports of cracking down on women’s protests.
On Sunday (5), the Taliban announced that it would accept students to attend private universities under certain conditions, according to the AFP news agency. They will not be able to mix with men and will have to wear abaya (long dress) and niqab (veil that only exposes the eyes). In addition, they will have to leave class five minutes before the men and wait in a room until they leave the educational institutions.
The Taliban also want only female teachers or “older men” whose morality has been proven to teach women.
Some colleges followed the order, such as Avicenna’s economics, which installed curtains to separate men from women. “We couldn’t oppose it,” a university spokesman told AFP. “But very few students came today, due to uncertainty.” Photos of segregated classrooms at the college circulated on social media.
The curtains generated protests. “Putting up curtains is unacceptable,” Anjila, a 21-year-old student who has returned to classes at the University of Kabul, told Reuters. “I felt terrible when I walked into the room. Little by little we are going back 20 years in time.”
Even before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, women sat apart from men, but the rooms had no physical division, she said.
Not all institutions, however, immediately accepted the new rules. “We said that we would not accept the niqab because it is very difficult to enforce it, our students wear veils. We also told them that it is not written in the Koran,” said Noor Ali Rahmani, director of Gharjistan university. He says he hopes the international community will pressure the fundamentalist group to ease the policy. “Otherwise, our students will not accept and we will have to close the university.”
Sher Azam, a professor at a private university in Kabul, said the institute he works for gave professors the option of teaching separate classes for men and women or sharing a room with curtains.
But, in a country mired in crisis, there are doubts about the presence of students. “I don’t know how many students will return, because of financial problems, as many families are without jobs,” he said.
A journalism professor at the University of Herat in the west of the country told Reuters he had decided to split his one-hour class in half: the first half for women, the second half for men. Of the 120 students in her course, less than a quarter showed up this Monday. “The students are very nervous. I told them to keep coming and studying.”
Other voices are more positive and see the glass half full. “Today I talked to some students. They are happy to be able to go to universities, even with the veil. This opening of the Taliban represents a step forward,” tweeted Zuhra Bahman, who has been directing educational programs for women in the country for years.