Maryam, a 23-year-old political science student in Afghanistan, was finishing her university assignments on Tuesday night when her fiancé called to say the Taliban had banned all women from universities.
“He said to me, ‘I’m very sorry, you can’t take your final exam; universities are closed to you.’ My heart has been bleeding ever since I heard those words,” she told Al Jazeera, holding back her tears.
On Tuesday, the Taliban told all public and private universities:[suspend] girls education until further notice,” said a statement from Taliban Higher Education Minister Nida Mohammad Nadim.
The Taliban gave no reason for the ban. The Ministry of Higher Education did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The gates of several prominent universities were blocked Wednesday morning by Taliban vehicles in an attempt to prevent women from entering campuses, several students told Al Jazeera.
The ban came after women in Afghanistan took university entrance exams in October.
Girls have been banned from secondary schools since the Taliban took control of the country last year.
Maryam, whose full name has not been released to protect her identity, had spent the last two hours prior to the ban preparing for her exams scheduled for the next few days. She is in the last semester of her political science degree and was determined to complete it despite the grim conditions in the country.
“Every day I go to work, then take classes at night and study late into the night so I can fulfill my dreams and serve my country,” she said.
“I need to send an essay to another university for a masters scholarship. But my arms and legs are numb. I can’t write the words. I want to cry, but I can’t cry. I feel like I’ve been punished for having hopes and dreams,” she added.
The trauma of her loss was repeated by women across the country.
“I felt quiet when I first heard the news. I still don’t have words to describe the pain I feel in my heart,” said Sahar, a 22-year-old computer science student, who requested that her name be changed. She was in her final year of college and hoped to apply for a master’s degree in the same field.
“I was looking for further education and even thought about foreign universities. Now I feel like I’m out of control of my future,” she said.
“If I can’t study, my life is meaningless. It has no value.”
Just last week, Sahar had celebrated her sister’s graduation—a glimmer of hope and happiness in an otherwise grim year that saw two of her younger sisters expelled from high school.
“We organized a party for her, celebrated with our siblings, friends and mother and father who were so proud of us. But now we are all in mourning,” she said.
Despite promises of a softer stance on women’s issues, the Taliban have imposed increasingly severe restrictions on women’s freedoms, rights and movement.
“To be honest, I’m surprised they let the girls stay in universities for a whole year,” Madina, a lecturer at a public university in Afghanistan who requested her name be changed, told Al Jazeera.
“My students are in tears. These kids had dreams and hopes that they held on to even through all the losses and crises of the past 16 months.”
Old enough to remember the last time the Taliban seized power in the 1990s, Madina empathizes with the trauma that Afghan students go through.
“I lost many years of my education because of their ban the last time they were in power. I kept learning in secret, as many Afghan students do now, but it was very hard work to pick up where we left off after the Taliban were gone. I don’t wish that fate on anyone,” she said.
International bodies and governments have spoken out strongly against the ban.
“The world must reject, as the Afghans have done, that this is about culture or religion,” US Special Envoy Rina Amiri wrote on Twitter.
“In Afghan history, only the Taliban have enacted policies that prohibit girls’ education. In no Muslim-majority country, anywhere in the world, are girls denied an education,” she said, urging the world community to take action against the Taliban’s policies.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk also called the ban “unprecedented in the world”, adding that it comes “on top of girls being denied access to secondary school, just think of all female doctors, lawyers and teachers who are, and who will be, lost to the development of the country”.
The impact of Taliban policies was outlined in a recent report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which estimated that the exclusion of women from the economy could cost the country $1 billion, or 5 percent of gross domestic product ( GDP).
Since the takeover, women in Afghanistan have been prevented from participating in several sectors, representing a 21 percent drop in employment, according to the International Labor Organization.
Now that the universities are closed, those numbers are expected to rise.
It had long been clear that the ban was coming, Madina said.
“Our female students were stopped several times by the Taliban because of the clothes they were wearing or even the color of the fabric. I had been ordered to fire students if they did not comply with Taliban rules. Some of these restrictions we faced were unbelievable,” she said, adding that she herself had been held back several times for traveling to college without a male guardian, or “mahram.”
“I am single, my father died a long time ago and the Taliban killed my brother, my only mahram, in an attack 18 years ago. What should I do?”
Another professor, identifying only as Ahmad, added to Madina’s opinion.
“Female students have faced many challenges for the past year. They had to wear long and black clothes, they were not allowed to enter a male professor’s room or talk to a male professor outside the classroom. They only had to go to university on certain days and times. They were not allowed to use smartphones, even for photography,” he said.
“Even laughing out loud at university was not allowed.”
Ahmad picked up on these red flags and urged them to complete their work as soon as possible and prioritized the assessment of his female students – all of whom will graduate despite this ban.
“But the future of so many other women is at stake,” he said.
Afghan women appeal to the Taliban not to politicize knowledge.
“As a Muslim woman, I ask the Taliban for the right given to me in Islam,” said Maryam.
“They have to answer to the women in Afghanistan for doing this to us.”