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Afghan universities deserted amid new rules

KABUL: Students attend a class bifurcated by a curtain separating males and females at a private university in Kabul yesterday, to follow the Taleban’s ruling. – AFP

KABUL: Universities in Kabul were almost empty on the first day of the Afghan school year, as professors and students wrestled with the Taleban’s restrictive new rules for the classroom. The Taleban have promised a softer rule than during their first stint in power from 1996-2001, when women’s freedoms in Afghanistan were sharply curtailed and they were banned from higher education. This time, the hardline Islamist group have said women will be allowed to go to private universities under the new regime, but they face tough restrictions on their clothing and movement.

Women can only attend class if they wear an abaya – a flowing robe – and a niqab – a face veil with a small window to see through – and are separated from men, the Taleban said. “Our students don’t accept this and we will have to close the university,” said Noor Ali Rahmani, the director of Gharjistan University in Kabul, on an almost empty campus on Monday. “Our students wear the hijab, not the niqab,” he added, referring to a headscarf.

The Taleban education authority issued a lengthy document on Sunday outlining their measures for the classroom, which also ruled that men and women should be segregated – or at least divided by a curtain if there are 15 students or less. “We said we didn’t accept it because it will be difficult to do,” Rahmani said. “We also said that it is not real Islam, it is not what the Quran says.”

From now on at private colleges and universities, which have mushroomed since the Taleban’s first rule ended, women must only be taught by other women, or “old men”, and use a women-only entrance. They must also end their lessons five minutes earlier than men to stop them from mingling outside. So far, the Taleban has said nothing about public universities.

‘Let’s engage’
For some students, however, it was a relief that women would still be able to attend university at all under a new Taleban regime. Zuhra Bahman, who runs a scholarship program for women in Afghanistan, said on social media she had spoken to some of the students. “They are happy to go back to university, albeit in hijab,” she said. “Taleban opening universities for women is a key progress. Let’s continue to engage to agree on other rights and freedoms.”

Jalil Tadjlil, a spokesman for Ibn-e Sina University in the capital, said separate entrances had already been created for men and women. “We didn’t have the authority to accept or reject the decisions that have been imposed,” he told AFP, blaming the “ongoing uncertainty” for the lack of students. The university posted a picture online of male and female students separated by a curtain. Images shared on Facebook by its department of economics and management showed six women wearing the hijab and ten male students with a grey curtain running between them, as a male teacher wrote on a whiteboard.

‘Everything changed’
Usually, campus corridors on the first day of the term would be packed with students catching up after the summer. But on Monday, there was a strikingly low turnout at Kabul’s universities, leaving education leaders wondering just how many young, talented people have fled the country as part of the “brain drain”. Rahmani said only 10 to 20 percent of the 1,000 students who enrolled last year came to Gharjistan University on Monday, although there were no classes scheduled.

He estimated up to 30 percent of the students left Afghanistan after the Taleban seized control in the middle of August. “We have to see first if students come,” he said. Reza Ramazan, a computer science teacher at the university said women students were particularly at risk when travelling to campus. “It can be dangerous at checkpoints,” he said. “The Taleban can check their phones and computers.” For 28-year-old computer science student Amir Hussein, “everything changed completely” after the Taleban takeover. “Many students are not interested anymore in studying because they don’t know what their future will be,” he said. “Most of them want to leave Afghanistan.”

‘Catastraphe’ looms
Meanwhile, the United Nations appealed for almost $200 million in extra funding for life-saving aid in Afghanistan after the Taleban’s takeover sparked a host of new issues. The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said the extra sum meant a total of $606 million in aid was now needed for Afghanistan until the end of the year.

“Basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing and food and other life-saving aid is about to run out,” said OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke. The issue will be discussed next Monday at a ministerial meeting in Geneva hosted by UN chief Antonio Guterres. The country, now under the control of the Taleban after 20 years of war, is facing a “looming humanitarian catastrophe”, Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric warned last week when announcing the conference.

OCHA voiced hope that countries would pledge generously at the conference, saying $606 million was needed to provide critical food and livelihood assistance to nearly 11 million people, and essential health services to 3.4 million. The funds would also go towards treatment for acute malnutrition for more than a million children and women, water, sanitation and hygiene interventions, and protection of children and survivors of gender-based violence.

Most of the requested funds had already been asked for at the end of last year as part of a $1.3-billion humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan, which remains severely underfunded. Even before the Taleban victory, Afghanistan was heavily aid-dependent-with 40 percent of the country’s GDP drawn from foreign funding. The UN has warned 18 million people are facing a humanitarian disaster, and another 18 million could quickly join them. A full $413 million of appeal were unmet needs from the previous appeal, while $193 million would go towards new emerging needs and changes in operating costs, OCHA said. – Agencies


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