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‘My heart is bleeding’: Afghan women devastated by university ban

Maryam, a 23-year-old political science student from Afghanistan, was finishing her college assignments Tuesday night when her fiancé called to tell her that the Taliban had banned all women from universities.

“He told me: ‘I’m so sorry, you won’t be able to do your final exams; The universities have closed for you. My heart has been bleeding ever since I heard those words,” she told Al Jazeera, holding back tears.

On Tuesday, the Taliban told all public and private universities that “[suspend] girls’ education until further notice,” according to a statement issued by Taliban Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim.

The Taliban did not give a reason for the ban. The Higher Education Ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

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The gates of several prominent universities were blocked by Taliban vehicles on Wednesday morning in an attempt to prevent women from entering the campuses, several students told Al Jazeera.

The ban came after women from Afghanistan took university entrance exams in October.

Girls have already been banned from secondary schools since the Taliban took control of the country last year.

Maryam, whose full name has been withheld to protect her identity, had spent the last two hours before the ban preparing for her exams scheduled for the next few days. She is in the last semester of her political science degree and was determined to complete it despite the bleak circumstances in the country.

“Every day I go to work, then I attend classes at night and study until late at night, so that I can achieve my dreams and serve my country,” he said.

“I have to submit an essay to another university for a master’s scholarship. But my arms and legs are numb. I can’t write the words. I want to cry, but I can’t cry. I feel like I have been punished for having hopes and dreams,” she added.

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The trauma of her loss was echoed by women across the country.

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“I was silent when I first heard the news. I still have no words to describe the pain I feel in my heart,” said Sahar, a 22-year-old computer science student, who asked that her name be changed. She was in the last year of her degree and she hoped to apply for a master’s degree in the same field.

“I was looking at higher education courses and was even considering foreign universities. Now, I feel like my future is no longer in my control,” she said.

“If I can’t study, my life has no meaning. It does not have value.

Last week, Sahar had celebrated her sister’s graduation, a ray of hope and happiness in a bleak year that saw two of her younger sisters kicked out of high school.

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“We organized a party for her, we celebrated with our brothers, friends and mother and father who were very proud of us. But now, we are all in mourning,” she said.

Despite promising a softer stance on women’s issues, the Taliban have placed increasingly severe restrictions on women’s freedoms, rights and movement.

“To be honest, I am surprised that they let girls stay in universities for a whole year,” Madina, a professor at a public university in Afghanistan who applied to have her name changed, told Al Jazeera.

“My students are crying, these children had dreams and hopes that they held on to even through all the losses and crises of the last 16 months.”

Madina is old enough to remember the last time the Taliban seized power in the 1990s, and she can relate to the trauma Afghan students are going through.

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“I lost many years of my education because of their ban the last time they were in power. I continued to learn in secret as many Afghan students do now, but it was very hard work picking up where we left off after the Taliban left. I would not wish that fate on anyone,” he said.

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International agencies and governments have come out strongly against the ban.

“The world must reject, as the Afghans have done, that it is about culture or religion,” US special envoy Rina Amiri wrote on Twitter.

“In Afghan history, only the Taliban have enacted policies banning girls’ education. In no Muslim-majority country, anywhere in the world, are girls denied an education,” she noted, urging the global community to take action against the Taliban’s policies.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk also called the ban “unprecedented in the world,” adding that “in addition to girls being banned from secondary school, just think of all the doctors, lawyers and teachers who have been, and who will be, lost for the development of the country”.

The effect of the Taliban’s policies was exposed in a recent United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, which estimated that the exclusion of women from the economy could cost the country $1 billion, or 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

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Since the takeover, women in Afghanistan have been prevented from participating in various sectors, marking a 21 percent drop in employment, according to the International Labor Organization.

With universities closed, those numbers are expected to rise.

It was clear that the ban was coming, Madina said.

“Our students were being detained by the Taliban several times because of the clothes they were wearing or even the color of the fabric. I had been instructed to fire the students if they did not follow the Taliban rules. Some of these restrictions we had to deal with were unbelievable,” she said, adding that she herself had been detained multiple times for traveling to university without a male guardian, or “mahram”.

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“I am not married, my father died a long time ago and the Taliban killed my brother, my only mahram, in an attack 18 years ago. What am I supposed to do?”

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Another professor, who gave his name only as Ahmad, joined Medina’s views.

“The students faced many challenges since last year. They had to wear long black clothes, were not allowed to enter a teacher’s room or talk to a teacher outside of class. They had to enter the university only on specific days and times. They were not allowed to use smartphones, even for photographic purposes,” she said.

“You weren’t even allowed to laugh out loud in college.”

Realizing these red flags, Ahmad urged them to finish their work as quickly as possible and prioritized testing their female students, all of whom will graduate, despite this ban.

“But the future of so many other women is at stake,” she said.

Afghan women appeal to the Taliban not to politicize knowledge.

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“As a Muslim woman, I ask the Taliban for the right that Islam gives me,” Maryam said.

“They have to answer to the women of Afghanistan why they are doing this to us.”

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