The Afghan government on Tuesday barred women from attending private and public universities, officials said, in the latest severe blow to women’s rights under a Taliban administration that has all but reinstituted the hard-line rule the group maintained during its first stretch in power during the 1990s.
The move is the most recent sign that the Taliban’s leadership has cast aside any intent to moderate, and it is the realization of fears that 20 years of Western human rights and governance initiatives would be undone after the Taliban took power last year. The new government in recent weeks has reinstated Shariah law, carried out public floggings across the country and conducted one public execution.
All that is likely to threaten the influx of badly needed international aid that has kept Afghanistan from the brink of famine as it grapples with a devastating economic collapse.
The news on Tuesday, delivered in a letter from the higher education ministry and confirmed by the ministry’s spokesman to The New York Times, was crushing to Afghan women who had been raised in an era of relative opportunity, but who have seen those rights slowly erased since the Western-backed government collapsed late in the summer of 2021.
In March, the new government reneged on promises to allow girls to attend public high schools, with officials saying they needed more time to create a plan for them to reopen in accordance with Islamic law. Many high-school-aged girls had held out hope that their schools would reopen because universities had continued to allow women to attend classes.
But the decision on Tuesday stamped out any vestige of that hope.
“The university was the only window of hope for me, but today we are stuck in such a black hole,” said Sakina Sama, 22, a second-year university student studying journalism in Balkh Province, in northern Afghanistan.
Ms. Sama had worked in a photo and video studio under the previous Western-backed government. But she lost her job when the Taliban seized power and restricted women to jobs mostly in education and health care, serving fellow women. Continuing her education was her only joy since the Taliban seized power, she said.
“I have no more hope or motivation left,” she said. “If being a girl is a sin, and I was born a girl, it is not my fault.”
Farhanaz, 19, who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of retribution, said that after the Taliban seized power last year, she nearly lost her motivation to study as she watched the new government roll out a flood of edicts rolling back women’s freedoms.
Girls were banned from high schools, and women from public spaces like parks. The morality police appeared on the streets chastising women who were not covered from head to toe in all-concealing burqas and headpieces in public.
Farhanaz said she and her friends had clung to hope that the new government would eventually return to its early pledges to moderate and allow women to retain a place in society, as officials sought international recognition for their administration.
Then on Tuesday a letter by the spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education, Hafez Ziaullah Hashemi, began circulating on social media, instructing private and public universities to suspend women from attending university classes until further notice. Mr. Hashemi said that the decision was made by the cabinet of the new government and ordered universities to inform the ministry once they had dismissed all female students.
For Farhanaz and her sister — an 18-year-old who had just been accepted to a university psychology program — the news was devastating. She said her sister had locked herself in her room, sobbing at the news.
“Now I don’t even have the motivation to survive,” Farhanaz said.
Western officials condemned the government’s action on Tuesday.
“This unacceptable stance will have significant consequences for the Taliban,” Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said at a news conference in Washington. Mr. Price would not give details on what penalties the United States or its allies might impose.
Even as the world was receiving news of the latest hard-line government ruling, another decision was unfolding: Mr. Price said that in what appeared to be a good-will gesture, Afghan officials had released two Americans who had been detained in the country. Mr. Price did not identify the freed Americans, and he said that their release was not part of a prisoner or detainee swap and that no ransom or payment had been involved.
The ruling on women’s rights was another point of evidence that ideological hard-liners within the Taliban movement have been imposing their influence over those who have urged moderation and engagement with the international community.
Since the first months of Taliban governance began in August last year, initial promises by officials to preserve the right to education and employment for women have given way to increasingly conservative edicts, including by the supreme leader of the Taliban movement, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Sheikh Haibatullah, who is based in Kandahar, the southern heartland of the Taliban movement, has appointed allies to government posts — including the ministries of education and higher education — and sought counsel from ultraconservative clerics.
In recent months, his allies have pushed policies including the appointment of thousands of religious scholars to government offices, the waiving of standard academic requirements for former Taliban fighters in universities, and the implementation of harsh interpretations of Shariah law that the first Taliban government enforced in the 1990s.
For many Afghans, the return to hard-line justice has been chilling.
This month, Mohammad Shaker Hashimi, a truck driver in Charikar, a city north of Kabul, awoke to the sound of announcements from loudspeakers summoning residents to the city’s stadium at 9 a.m. for a “punishment ceremony.”
He walked to the stadium and joined a crowd of around 400 people, he said. After instructing the crowd not to take photos or videos, local officials escorted 18 men with hands tied behind their backs and nine women clad in all-concealing blue burqas onto the field and separated them by gender.
Two judges gave a speech about Shariah law and explained the prisoners’ crimes: Women were charged with running away from home and moral corruption, while the men were found guilty of theft, adultery and selling drugs, among other crimes, Mr. Hashimi said. Then the officials began to whip them — between 20 and 39 lashes each.
“When they beat the women with cables, one of the women fell to the ground, and I could not watch more and left,” Mr. Hashimi said.
He said that a wave of hope brought by the end of the long war was being bitterly undone in recent weeks, bringing a sense of helplessness.
“In the past, there had been explosions and suicide attacks, and we thought that the war and violence were over,” he said. But now, he added, “the torture of people has resumed in public.”
Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Edward Wong from Washington.