Taliban minister defends closing universities to women as global backlash grows

Taliban minister defends closing universities to women as global backlash grows

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government said on Thursday it had closed universities to women, in part because female students failed to conform to their interpretation of the Islamic dress code, in a decision condemned around the world.

Female students were turned away from campus on Wednesday and the Higher Education Department said their access would be suspended “until further notice”. The move drew strong condemnation from foreign governments and criticism from some Afghans, sparking protests in Afghan cities.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban were trying to condemn Afghan women “to a dark future without opportunities” by barring them from attending universities.

Acting Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim told Afghan state broadcaster RTA in his initial comments on the matter that several reasons led to the decision, including female students not wearing appropriate Islamic dress and interactions between students of different genders.

“They didn’t adhere to hijab (Islamic dress code for women), they came with the clothes that most women wear to go to a wedding,” he said.

Blinken urged the Taliban to reverse the ban.

“We are currently working on this with other countries. There will be costs if this is not reversed,” the US Secretary of State said at a news conference, declining to give details. “We will pursue them with allies and partners.”

US-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 after 20 years of war as the previous Western-backed government collapsed and militants enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam seized Kabul.

Since the Taliban took power, students and professors say university classes have been segregated by gender and female students have adjusted their clothing to comply with instructions such as covering their faces and wearing dark colors.

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

The university minister said in his interview that the Taliban had “begged the world not to interfere in our affairs.”

Nadim said discussions about women’s education are ongoing.

The Taliban-led government had already drawn criticism, including from foreign governments, for failing to open higher girls’ schools by the start of the school year in March, a reversal of signals it would do.

In a sign of tighter enforcement of restrictions on teenage girls’ education, a letter from the Department of Education on Thursday directed all educational institutions not to allow girls over the 6th grade to enter their institutions.

Although high schools were closed in most provinces, some remained open and many tutoring centers and language courses were open to girls.

Nadim said religious education will remain open to female students.

In the capital, around 50 mostly female protesters gathered in front of Kabul University, holding up banners and chanting: “Education is our right, universities should be opened.”

Students at Nangahar University in eastern Afghanistan also protested the day before, and male medical students walked out of exams to protest the expulsion of their female classmates.

Large-scale protests have become rare in Afghanistan since the country was taken over by the Taliban, as they are often violently put down by security officials. The scattered protests are a sign of discontent that Taliban policies have provoked, supporters say.

On Thursday, the Group of Seven (G7) Wealthy Nations said in a statement condemning the Taliban’s decision on universities that gender persecution could constitute a crime against humanity.

Former US President George W. Bush, who ordered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001, and his wife Laura on Thursday spoke out against criticism of the ban and the Taliban’s treatment joined by women.

“Treating women as second-class citizens, depriving them of their universal human rights and denying them the opportunity to better themselves and their communities should cause outrage from all of us,” they said in a statement released on Twitter.

Nadim said the Taliban-led government respects women’s rights in accordance with Islamic law.

Diplomats say the backlash toward restrictions on women’s education is hampering the Taliban-led government’s efforts to seek formal recognition and lift sanctions that are hampering the economy.

(Reporting by Kabul Newsroom; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; editing by Christian Schmollinger and Alistair Bell)

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