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Public universities closed...

Public universities closed...

More than a month since capturing power in the Afghan capital Kabul, cementing their hold over the country, the Taliban is struggling to re-open public sector universities under a hardline gender segregation policy. The thorny path chosen by the Islamists is proving difficult to implement for large public universities, experts said.

Driven by mounting student demand for education, some private universities resumed classes on 6 September 2021, accepting Taliban demands such as raising barriers inside classrooms to segregate male and female students. Many students stayed away.

Public institutions have not yet been able to resume.

The Taliban’s acting minister of higher education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, announced at a news conference in Kabul on Sunday 12 September that efforts were underway to resume studies at public universities. He was looking into how this could be done, as public university courses were scheduled to begin in a week.

“Meetings are underway to start public universities, and when financial problems and other issues are resolved, the time for the start of universities will be announced,” said Haqqani, adding that preparations for the opening of universities would not take more than a week.

Haqqani reiterated previous Taliban statements that a new education plan had been launched and that girls and boys will now study in separate classes. The mixed education system for girls and boys “contradicts Islamic and national values”, he added.

Huge challenge

However, university administrators implementing these policies said this was a huge challenge for public institutions, which have large numbers of students.

“It is a huge, complicated, and to large extent an unrealistic, task of segregating male and female students in all public universities, hostels and other higher education institutions,” Ruh Ullah, a Kabul University lecturer, told University World News.

He said that immediate problems the Taliban government faced in realising the policy were lack of funds, female teachers and other resources.

Ullah pointed to Kabul University’s hostels, which house thousands of students – male and female – from different provinces. “The daily expenses of running operations here alone run into millions of afghanis [US$1 = 90 afghani]. Then there are the issues of a lack of female teachers and other academic staff, laboratories and other resources.

“This is a gigantic task conceived in a very fragile situation.”

Some universities close again

In Herat, where some institutions – including the public Herat University – had opened in late August, universities have closed again or have not opened, as a result of the Taliban’s new policy directives.

An official decree No 146 issued by the Taliban’s higher education ministry this week stated that all public universities and private higher education institutions should consider separate classes for male and female students.

It also stated that female students should be taught by female professors in future. If universities do not have female professors, they should engage “senior professors with a good reputation” for this purpose.

All female students, teachers and staff must wear an Islamic abaya robe and a hijab that covers the hair, according to another document issued by the Taliban education ministry on 5 September. The garments must be black.

Segregation is unpopular

Many observers say that the Taliban government’s decision to segregate classes, when the academic year has already been disrupted by the war and COVID-19 pandemic, is unpopular.

Protests have been held by women in several cities, including Kabul and Herat, over their loss of rights and liberties in all areas of society, including higher education. Some were beaten by the Taliban.

Students, male and female, are concerned. “After seeing the armed Taliban on streets everywhere, and seeing videos of females protesting and being beaten, none of our classmates dared to return to the campus,” said Hajira Samadi, a student at a private university.

Noor Ali Rahmani, director of the private Gharjistan University in Kabul, noted that the campus was almost empty this week, after the strict dress code for women students was announced. “Our students don’t accept this, and we will have to close the university,” he was quoted by AFP as saying.

But public universities will not be able to reject the education ministry’s decisions.

An administrator at one of Afghanistan’s leading private universities told University World News on condition of anonymity that the sector “is facing a dead end”, with Taliban pressure for gender segregation on the one hand, and students’ and their parents’ anxieties on the other.

“Actually, we have lost everything. Most of our female colleagues and students have left; most of our remaining female students are trying to flee the country. All our efforts towards seeking international recognition before the Taliban [took over] are hampered,” he said.

A professor at another Kabul-based university said the ‘hidden’ damage sustained by both public and private sector institutions remains “beyond imagination”.

“The entire ecosystem of higher education being imposed now is not acceptable. Its [higher education’s] growth or sustainability is not feasible. It is simply outdated, back-tracking on all that was achieved in the past 20 years.”

The United Nations agency UNESCO warned on 10 September: “If a ban on co-education is implemented, and on males teaching females, this will deal a huge blow to women’s participation in higher education and to girls’ education more broadly, negatively impacting on their lives, work and citizenship.”


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