Taliban minister defends closing universities to women as global backlash grows

Though high schools in most provinces have been closed, some have remained open and many tutoring centers and language classes have been open to girls.

Taliban members are seen at the Taliban flag-raising ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 31, 2022.  (photo credit:  REUTERS/ALI KHARA)
Taliban members are seen at the Taliban flag-raising ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 31, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALI KHARA)

Afghanistan's Taliban-run administration said on Thursday it had closed universities to women partly due to female students not adhering to its interpretation of the Islamic dress code, in a decision that was condemned globally.

Female university students were turned away from campuses on Wednesday and the higher education ministry said their access would be suspended "until further notice." The move prompted strong condemnation from foreign governments and criticism from some Afghans, sparking protests in Afghan cities.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban are trying to sentence Afghanistan's women "to a dark future without opportunity" by banning them from attending universities.

Acting higher Education Minister Nida Mohammad Nadim, in his first comments on the matter, told Afghan state broadcaster RTA that several issues had prompted the decision, including female students not wearing appropriate Islamic attire and interaction between students of different genders taking place.

"They didn't observe Hijab (Islamic female dress code), they were coming with the clothes that mostly women wear to go to a wedding," he said.

A man holds a gun as Taliban supporters celebrate the first anniversary of the departure of US forces from Afghanistan on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 30, 2022. (credit:  REUTERS/ALI KHARA)A man holds a gun as Taliban supporters celebrate the first anniversary of the departure of US forces from Afghanistan on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 30, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ALI KHARA)

"They didn't observe Hijab (Islamic female dress code), they were coming with the clothes that mostly women wear to go to a wedding."

Nida Mohammad Nadim

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, students and professors say university classes have been separated by gender and female students have adjusted their attire to meet instructions such as covering their face and wearing dark colors.

Protests

Dozens of women gathered outside Kabul University on Thursday to protest in the first major public demonstration in the capital since the decision.

The higher education minister said in his interview that the Taliban "asked the world not to interfere in our affairs."

Nadim said discussions over female education were ongoing.

The Taliban-led administration had already drawn criticism including from foreign governments for not opening girls' high schools at the start of the school year in March, making a U-turn on signals it would do.

In a sign of stricter enforcement of restrictions on teenage girls' education, a letter from the education ministry on Thursday instructed all educational institutions not to allow girls above Grade 6 to access their facilities.

Though high schools in most provinces have been closed, some have remained open and many tutoring centers and language classes have been open to girls.

Nadim said religious education remained open to female students.

In the capital, about 50 mainly female protestors assembled outside Kabul University while holding banners and chanted: "Education is our right, universities should be opened."

The previous day students in Nangahar University in eastern Afghanistan also protested and male medical students walked out of exams protest at their female classmates being excluded.

Large-scale protesting has become rare in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over the country, as they are often shut down forcefully by security agencies. The scattered protests that have occurred are a sign of the discontent the Taliban's policy has generated, advocates say.

On Thursday, the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy nations said gender persecution may amount to a crime against humanity, in a statement condemning the Taliban's decision on universities.

Nadim said the Taliban-run administration respects women's rights in accordance with Islamic law.

The backlash towards restrictions on female education is complicating the Taliban-led administration's efforts to gain formal recognition and the lifting of sanctions that are hampering the economy, diplomats say.