Female university students in Afghanistan returned to campuses Wednesday morning as usual but left in tears after being turned away by Taliban security forces, citing an overnight ban on their higher education.
The Islamist Taliban regime announced late on Tuesday that public and private universities across the country were being closed to female students until further notice, in the latest assault on Afghan women's access to education and public life.
The suspension of higher education for female students has outraged Afghans and the international community, who say the Taliban appear bent on isolating the country under their men-only administration.
Witnesses in the Afghan capital, Kabul, saw students crying and hugging each other at the gates of several higher education institutions, including the historic Kabul public university, in the morning after being told they were not allowed to attend class. Similar scenes were witnessed elsewhere in the conflict-ravaged and impoverished South Asian country.
"I came to know about the ban only this morning when I reached the campus and there was a large number of Taliban forces at the entrance turning away female students," a final-year student told VOA requesting anonymity for security reasons and with tears in her eyes.
A private university student who identified herself as Fatima, told VOA they were due to take their final year exams but were prevented from entering the campus.
"All of us were crying and refusing to leave the gates for several hours, and begging Taliban authorities to let us take our exams, but all went in vain," Fatima lamented.
The United States swiftly condemned what it called the Taliban's "indefensible decision" to ban women from universities and warned of consequences for the Islamist rulers.
"No other country in the world bars women and girls from receiving an education. The Taliban's repressive edicts have resulted in inexcusable restrictions on Afghan women and girls, including on their access to schools," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Tuesday.
"The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of all in Afghanistan. This decision will come with consequences for the Taliban," Blinken added without elaborating.
Since returning to power 16 months ago, the Taliban have increasingly excluded women out of public life despite repeated pledges they would respect fundamental rights of all Afghans. They have ordered women to cover their faces in public and to not visit health facilities or go on long road trips unless accompanied by male relatives.
Women have been barred from public places like parks, gyms and baths. Most female government staff have been told to stay home or have been rendered jobless. Teenaged girls beyond grade six have been banned from attending secondary schools.
"By preventing girls from attending high school and now universities; Taliban have demonstrated they have nothing but a vision of darkness for Afghanistan," said Torek Farhadi, an Afghan official and political commentator.
The Norwegian Refugee Council charity group said Wednesday it was "appalled" by the latest Taliban restriction on women.
"Closing universities to women is a giant step in the wrong direction that will devastate their futures and the future of the country. We call on the Taliban authorities to immediately lift this and other restrictions on access to education," Neil Turner, the charity's Afghanistan director, was quoted as saying.
Neighboring Pakistan, which maintains close ties with the Taliban regime, urged Afghan authorities Wednesday to revisit the ban on university and higher education for women.
"Pakistan is disappointed to learn about the suspension of university and higher education for female students in Afghanistan," said a foreign ministry statement in Islamabad.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was " deeply alarmed" by the Taliban's suspension of access to universities to women and girls, his spokesman said Tuesday.
Guterres reiterated that "the denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls but will have a devastating impact on the country's future."
The recent revival of public floggings and executions of convicts stemmed from a directive Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issued last month to the Taliban judiciary to begin applying Sharia Islamic law to criminal justice.
Since then, nearly 140 people, including women, have been flogged in crowded sports stadiums across several Afghan provinces for crimes such as adultery, gay sex and theft.
This month, in a western province, the Taliban staged their first public execution of a convicted murderer since they came to power in August 2021. The public punishments have angered the global community, but the Taliban rejected the outcry and defended the act as strictly in line with Islamic law, a claim questioned by scholars in rest of the Muslim majority countries.
The return of the Taliban has worsened an already bad national humanitarian crisis, with millions of Afghans facing food shortages, and pushed the country's economy to the brink of collapse because of financial sanctions and the suspension of development aid.
Blinken noted in his statement on Tuesday that Afghanistan is already annually losing more than $1 billion in contributions that women could be making to the economy.
"Now the Taliban have sentenced the Afghan people to these losses and more. No country can thrive when half of its population is held back," Blinken said. (HN/VOA)