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The Taliban ended college for women. Here's how Afghan women are defying the ban

In December, the Taliban banned female students from attending university. Some of them are turning to online options. Above: Afghan female students attend Kabul University in 2010.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
In December, the Taliban banned female students from attending university. Some of them are turning to online options. Above: Afghan female students attend Kabul University in 2010.

She's a young student in Afghanistan who graduated high school 3 years early at age 15. For years, she's dreamed of becoming an engineer, both to rebuild her country and to prove that women could work in what's often seen there as a male field.

M.H., who requested anonymity fearing Taliban reprisal for speaking to the press and criticizing their policy, was inches from reaching her goal this past December. But days after she completed requirements for a civil engineering degree, the Taliban banned women from universities. Her gender torpedoed her dream.

The Taliban "decided to withhold our diplomas just because we are women," M.H. told NPR. "Now I cannot even apply for any further education because I have no document to prove that I finished my engineering degree." To have any hope of leaving and establishing a career abroad, or even of working in a future Afghanistan where the Taliban are no longer in power, she's relying on the one alternative available to her — making a second attempt to earn a bachelor's degree by taking online classes in computer science from a university in the U.S.

Enrollmentin college in Afghanistan has historically been low for women and men. While exact figures aren't known, M.H. is one of an estimated 90,000 women impacted by the ban. Many of them are now turning to digital spaces for alternatives. It's not an ideal path. Obstacles abound, from erratic internet connectivity to a lack of jobs for women to aspire to.

Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban have curtailed women's rights. Women cannot travel without a male guardian and have few work options. Most girls have been forbidden to attend high school since the takeover. Fewer than 12 percent of Afghan women feel treated with respect and dignity, according to a recent Gallup survey. Those women who express dissent against Taliban authorities are met with violent suppression of their protests, as well as imprisonment, intimidation and even torture, forcing many to flee the country.

Coping with a new reality

When the Taliban entered her city, M.H. says, "I cried myself to sleep for many days, but then I told myself 'I cannot let this be my reality.'"

Though the regime allowed women to continue university education at first, "I did not trust them," M.H. said. After the takeover, women were only allowed into universities every other day to ensure total gender segregation, so she searched for online coursework to fill the rest of her time. In 2021 she secured a scholarship for University of the People, a private online university based in Pasadena, California. The University of the People is accredited by the U.S. Distance Education Accrediting Commission, making its degrees equivalent to a U.S. college degree that is accepted by employers and other institutions of higher learning. Now, seven days a week, M.H. studies online, unless electricity or internet are unavailable.

Several universities and education institutes in addition to University of the People, such as FutureLearn, Herat School and Education Bridge have responded to this spike in demand by creating courses and offering scholarships to Afghan students, particularly women, to help them continue their education.

"The future prospects for Afghan students are indeed bleak but that does not mean they should stop their educational journeys," said Shai Reshef, president of University of the People. "The Taliban's restrictions on education are extremely short-sighted and heartless." He says his university has received over 6,000 applications since December's ban was announced, compared to 10,000 in the entire prior year. The university does not have enough scholarships for everyone.

Other organizations are experiencing similar demand. "I get more than 10 messages on social media every day asking about courses for girls. Since the university ban, I have been getting another dozen requests for starting university-level online courses," said Pashtana Durrani, an Afghan educator and director of the nonprofit Learn Afghanistan, which is based in the southern Kandahar province and today operates discreetly with the support of local elders.

Learn Afghanistan offers vocational training for software development skills, but not university degrees. It currently enrolls more than 400 students. Nearly all courses are conducted online. Many take place in rooms with computers hooked up to generators, all in discreet locations to avoid Taliban detection.

Durrani says the arrangement is designed to circumvent some of Afghanistan's big barriers to online education — lack of reliable internet, electricity and infrastructure.

Her organization launched in 2018, and she says power was intermittent in southern Afghan provinces even before the 2021 Taliban takeover. "It is so hard to convince the donors why we're spending so much on [portable] batteries because in the West such luxuries are often taken for granted," Durrani said.

Online education brings its own set of problems

Bureaucratic obstacles also stand in the way. No government in Afghanistan has ever recognized online degrees, Durrani says. It's not clear whether the courses will benefit Afghan female students if, or when, they are allowed back into universities and industries, unless a future government in Afghanistan moves to accommodate the many online course graduates in the country, she adds.

Reshef is more optimistic that online courses could be stepping stones for Afghan students. "Even if the Afghan government does not recognize online degrees, our Afghan students can use their degrees to obtain online jobs or apply to a graduate program at traditional brick and mortar institutions" globally, he says. "A country in which only half of its population has access to college education is doomed to failure."

"Any initiative to educate Afghan girls and women is appreciated," says Sahar Fetrat, an assistant researcher with the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch. She cautions, however, that online education in today's Afghanistan can reinforce, to an extent, the Taliban's attempt to remove women from public spaces. "We must strive to push and reclaim women and girls' presence back in educational, social, political, and all spheres of life that have been robbed by the Taliban."

Furthermore, Durrani says, "It isn't fair to restrict women's education and careers to only those fields that they can study online." Some women, she says, "might want to be engineers or doctors which cannot be studied online."

Having been denied her rightful engineering degree, M.H. is now focused on excelling at her computer science coursework. While it is difficult for women to leave to study abroad, it has been possible for some to secure visas in neighboring countries. Women can in fact leave, with difficulty. They're expected to have a male guardian accompany them but often are able to leave without one.

M.H. hopes her cumulative grade point average of 3.84 out of 4 will earn admission to a Master's degree program in another country. "It doesn't matter to me which country," she says. "I just want to go to a better country where at least I have electricity and internet so I can study something and be someone who can contribute to my society."

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ruchi Kumar