Afghanistan’s Taliban-run higher education ministry has said that female students would not be allowed access to the country’s universities until further notice.
A letter, confirmed by a spokesperson for the higher education ministry on Tuesday, instructed Afghan public and private universities to suspend access to female students immediately, in accordance with a Cabinet decision.
“You are all informed to immediately implement the mentioned order of suspending the education of females until further notice,” said a letter issued to all government and private universities, signed by the Minister for Higher Education, Neda Mohammad Nadeem.
The spokesman for the ministry, Ziaullah Hashimi, who tweeted the letter, confirmed the order to several news agencies including AFP and the Associated Press.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric described the move as “troubling”.
“It’s clearly another broken promise from the Taliban,” Dujarric told reporters on Tuesday.
“We have seen since their takeover … a lessening of space for women, not only in education, but access to public areas,” he said.
“It’s another very troubling move and it’s difficult to imagine how a country can develop, can deal with all the challenges that it has without the active participation of women and their education.”
The announcement came as the United Nations Security Council met in New York on Afghanistan. The United States and British UN both condemned the move during the council meeting.
“The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of all Afghans, especially the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls,” said US Deputy UN Ambassador Robert Wood.
‘Feeling this pain’
The Taliban has defended its decision, saying such restrictions have been done to preserve “national interest” and women’s “honour”.
Several Taliban officials said the secondary education ban was only temporary, but they also wheeled out a litany of excuses for closure – from a lack of funds to the time needed to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines.
It has also restricted women from most fields of employment, ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public, and banned them from parks and gyms.
Confirmation of the university restrictions came the same evening as a UN Security Council session on Afghanistan, at which the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, Roza Otunbayeva, said the closure of schools had “undermined” the Taliban administration’s relationship with the international community .
“As long as girls remain excluded from school and the de facto authorities continue to disregard other stated concerns of the international community, we remain at something of an impasse,” she said.
Meanwhile, Obaidullah Baheer, founder of the Let Afghan Girls Learn campaign, said the move is like “a recurring nightmare stretching over generations”.
“The Taliban chose the day and the time in which the UN security council was discussing Afghanistan to announce something like that,” Baheer told Al Jazeera.
“There is tension within the Taliban … even people who oppose this decision have been very passive,” he said.
“We kept relying on the Taliban to reform internally – that hasn’t worked,” Baheer said, adding that the international community’s reactions towards the Taliban have only “appeased” and “emboldened them”.
The decision came as many university students are sitting for end-of-term exams. One mother of a university student, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said her daughter called her in tears when she heard of the letter, fearing she could no longer continue her medical studies in Kabul.
“The pain that not only I … and [other] mothers have in our hearts, could not be described. We are all feeling this pain. They are worried for the future of their children,” she said.
The country has been reeling from a humanitarian crisis with more than half of the population facing hunger. amid Western-imposed sanctions, as well as the freezing of humanitarian aid and nearly $10bn in Afghan central bank assets.