Afghan scholars fear creeping closure of universities by Taliban

Recent measures prevent women from participating in academic conferences or graduation ceremonies

April 21, 2022
Taliban fighters stand guard at the main gate of Laghman University in Mihtarlam to illustrate Afghan scholars fear creeping closure of universities
Source: Getty

Academics in Afghanistan fear that the semester just finished could be their last before the Taliban closes universities ahead of major reforms.

The country’s fundamentalist regime, which took over nine months ago, has already put its stamp on higher education. It has forced out female faculty members and segregated students by gender, establishing physical barriers between men and women and changing schedules to divide them into separate classes.

In recent weeks, women have been banned from attending academic conferences or participating in graduation ceremonies with men. But despite these increasingly restrictive measures, many female students have at least been able to continue attending courses – something that lecturers fear could soon change.

Faculty and students at three Afghan universities told Times Higher Education that they were pessimistic that the new semester, scheduled to begin in late April, would start as planned.

While the Taliban has denied rumours that it intends to shutter universities, its reassurances have been met with scepticism, with academics broadly believing that the regime intends to keep institutions closed until it can restructure university curricula to conform to its extreme religious outlook.

“They have big plans for higher education…and they want to just buy time to bring those changes according to their own views,” said one academic, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety.

He worried that the resumption of higher education under the Taliban so far would be only a short-term measure “and that our rulers, the Islamic emirate, reached the conclusion that it’s not a good idea continuing this system”.

Already, constraints imposed by the Taliban have forced faculty and students to find roundabout ways of continuing their activities. In universities, male lecturers are banned from meeting female colleagues or students in their offices or even in public.

“We need a third person to bring our messages. Everything becomes very ridiculous. In this century, we use a third person to communicate,” the lecturer said.

Another lecturer, who works at Herat University and also asked to remain anonymous, believed that sweeping changes were in store for higher education – an opinion he said was shared by his colleagues.

“I think [the Taliban] will change curriculums in all fields of studies, particularly law schools. They will add religious topics,” he said.

While he too thought that the next semester would not start as planned, he predicted that the shutdown of higher education would take place gradually, in the form of delays instead of an outright ban.

“I think they won’t make an announcement on it but will make an excuse for delaying the start of the semester, then they will start only for males,” he said.

Like others, he noted that the Taliban had already reneged on its promise to continue girls’ secondary education with its closure of girls’ schools last month – not a good sign for universities, which, unlike schools, are co-educational.

At least one university has stated that it will further separate male and female students, with men coming to campus on odd number dates, and women on even dates. The announcement was made by Kabul University, but was believed to come from the Ministry of Education.

The Herat University lecturer said that even greater limitations on academic freedom could be the last straw for him and other university lecturers who have not yet fled Afghanistan.

“I stayed here to serve my country…I was feeling that my nation is in urgent need for me,” he said. “But nowadays, I’m very disappointed, and I think I will try my best to find a way to get out.”

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Reader's comments (1)

The war in Ukraine is keeping attention away from what is a disgusting situation in Afghanistan. Only a twisted interpretation of any religion can be used to try to justify discrimination and abuse.