The Taliban’s ban on girls studying at high schools will become a de facto ban on university degrees for women if it stays in place, a Taliban spokesperson and university officials have said.
Girls will not have the documents needed to enrol in higher education, or the academic capacity to start university courses after nearly a year out of school.
“Automatically if we do not have high school graduates, we won’t have new female university students any more,” said Maulawi Ahmed Taqi, a spokesperson for the Taliban’s ministry of higher education.
“But I am hopeful that the ministry of education will come up with a policy and soon reopen the schools. Because we have realised that it is important, and the ban on girls’ education is temporary.”
Even if practical barriers to women entering higher education are removed in the coming months, authorities are also considering limiting them to degrees in healthcare and education, said a source with Taliban leadership ties.
Without a high school graduation certificate, Afghan students cannot take the kankor national university entrance exam, which is required to enrol even at private colleges.
Last year, the Taliban automatically “graduated” female twelfth grade students, making them eligible for the exam, should they want to attempt it when the new government holds one.
But Afghanistan’s new rulers have not yet scheduled a session of the kankor since they took control of the country.
In the growing pool of would-be university students, women are already at a disadvantage competing against men who have been allowed to finish school. In the final weeks of 2022, when the Afghan school year ends, another class of boys will take their final 12th-grade exams.
It is not clear whether the Taliban will once again issue otherwise meaningless “high school graduation certificates” to girls who should be finishing with them. Afghan law bars them from taking the entrance exam without one.
Even if they are allowed to take part, university officials who handle admissions say they are worried how far girls will be falling behind, after nearly a year barred from education.
Extra classes can help make up for a few missed months, but girls who did not even finish 11th grade cannot be expected to move on to university classes, said Dr Azizullah Amir, president and founder of the all-female Moraa university.
He set up the university to educate female medics, after his own mother died from septic shock having refused to see a male doctor about an infection on her thigh. “A beautiful life was ruined by the loss of my mum to a highly preventable infection,” he said. “How could I sit quiet when I could prevent other children becoming orphaned early for a silly reason.”
Students, teachers, administrative staff and even gardeners are all women, helping draw in students from Afghanistan’s most conservative regions. It offers a stricter segregation than the Taliban has required of government universities, Amir points out, yet it is now at risk of being unable to enrol new students.
“Even now we have time, if they restart classes, in the remaining months of the year we can graduate students, with more effort and support including intensive classes,” he said. “But if it continues, then next year you won’t have students in the university, apart from those who graduated in previous years, which will be small numbers.”
Online classes and illegal underground schools have allowed some girls to keep studying, including in parts of the Taliban’s deeply conservative southern heartland, but these efforts only reach a tiny minority.
Because secret schools are private initiatives, most have to charge fees to at least cover their costs, and the economic catastrophe that engulfed Afghanistan means few families can afford them.
Streaming or downloading classes requires at least a smartphone and a generous data package, again out of reach for many of the girls who were the first in their family to reach high school.
Afghanistan’s new leaders have repeatedly claimed that they support women’s education, as long as it complies with their definition of Islamic regulations.
This includes near total separation of the sexes, although male professors still teach some women’s classes due to a shortage of specialists.
Taqi pointed to the ministry’s efforts to shift schedules and reallocate buildings, so that women can attend single-sex classes, as a concrete demonstration of that support.
Some universities, including the leading Kabul University, now teach men and women on alternate days. Others have morning and afternoon shifts.
“Our ministry is committed, we have plans, policies, procedures and as you see education in university is going on for both girls and boys,” he said.
But without a pathway to enrol new students, or should the Taliban bring in plans to limit what women can study, those changes will be little more than a temporary accommodation for the last classes of female students in many subjects.
“They want to restructure the universities, to streamline girls’ education to specific faculties,” said the source with Taliban links. “They [ask]: ‘Why should girls study engineering?’
“They will be restricted to specific faculties, medicine, education, sharia. I don’t even believe they are going to be that progressive to allow them to be doctors.”
Lutfullah Qasimyar contributed reporting