Kabul, Afghanistan

The 21-year-old student had worked hard for weeks as she prepared for final exams in her first year of college. She had almost finished, with only two exams remaining, when she heard the news: the Taliban government was suspending university education for all female students in Afghanistan.

“I didn’t stop and I kept studying for the exam,” she told CNN on Wednesday. “I went to college in the morning anyway.”

But it was useless. She arrived to find armed Taliban guards at the gates of her campus in Kabul, the Afghan capital, turning away any female students who tried to enter.

“It was a terrible scene,” she said. “Most of the girls, myself included, were crying and asking them to let us in… If you lose all your rights and you can’t do anything about it, how would you feel?

CNN is not naming the student for security reasons.

Tuesday’s Taliban move was just the latest step in their brutal crackdown on Afghan women’s freedoms, following their takeover of the country in August 2021.

Although the insurgent group has repeatedly claimed that it will protect the rights of girls and women, it has in fact done the opposite, taking away the hard-won freedoms they have fought tirelessly for over the past two years. last decades.

Some of its starkest restrictions relate to education, with girls barred from returning to secondary schools in March. The decision devastated many students and their families, who told CNN of their dashed dreams of becoming doctors, teachers or engineers.

For the student from Kabul, the loss of her education was an even greater shock than the bombings and violence she had witnessed before.

“I always thought we could overcome our grief and fear by educating ourselves,” she said. “However, this (time) is different. This is simply unacceptable and unbelievable.

The news was met with widespread condemnation and dismay, with many world leaders – and prominent Afghan figures – urging the Taliban to reverse their decision.

In a statement on Twitter, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – who fled Kabul when the Taliban took over – called the group illegitimate leaders holding “the entire population hostage”.

“The current problem of women’s education and work in the country is very serious, sad and the most obvious and cruel example of gender apartheid in the 21st century,” Ghani wrote. “I’ve said it over and over again that if a girl becomes literate, she changes five future generations, and if a girl remains illiterate, she causes the destruction of five future generations.”

He praised those in Afghanistan who were protesting the Taliban’s decision, calling them “pioneers”.

Another former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, also expressed his “deep regret” for the suspension. “The development, population and self-sufficiency of the country depend on the education and training of every child, girl and boy in this country,” he wrote.

Other foreign officials and leaders have issued similar statements, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US State Department spokesman Ned Price and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karen Decker.

The foreign ministries of France, Germany, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia also criticized the decision.

“Preventing half the population from contributing meaningfully to society and the economy will have a devastating impact on the entire country,” the UN mission in Afghanistan said in a statement.

“Education is a basic human right,” he added. “The exclusion of women and girls from secondary and higher education not only denies them this right, but also denies Afghan society as a whole the benefit of the contributions that women and girls have to offer. This deprives all of Afghanistan of a future.

Female students in Afghanistan say their future is now uncertain, with no clarity on what will happen to their education.

“I’m still hopeful that things will go back to normal, but I don’t know how long it will take,” said the student from Kabul. “Now a lot of girls including me are just thinking (about) what’s next, what can we do to get out of this situation.”

“I’m not resigning,” she added, saying she would consider going “elsewhere” if Afghanistan continued to ban female students.

Another 21-year-old, Maryam, knows first-hand the dangers of pursuing an education as a woman. As a high school student, she had been near an attack on Kabul University several years ago and remembers being evacuated “as bullets flew over our heads”.

Then, in September, she narrowly survived a suicide bombing at the Kaaj education center in Kabul, which killed at least 25 people, most believed to be young women. The attack sparked public outrage and horror, with dozens of women later taking to the streets of Kabul to protest.

Maryam, who is identified by name for her safety, missed the explosion by seconds. When she ran back to her class, she encountered the scattered bodies of her friends.

Each brush with death cemented her resolve not just to pursue her own ambitions — but the “dreams of all my best friends who died before my eyes,” she said.

Although she was accepted into a bachelor’s degree program weeks after the September bombing, she decided to postpone her university plans for a year, returning instead to rebuild the destroyed teaching center from scratch. . She wanted to encourage other girls to continue their education, she said.

Taliban security personnel stand guard at the entrance to a university in Jalalabad on December 21, 2022.

Now those dreams were shattered by Tuesday’s announcement.

“I’m just lost. I don’t know what to do and what to say,” she told CNN. “Since last night, I imagine all my friends who lost their lives in the Kaaj attack. What was their sacrifice for?

“We need education; we made a lot of sacrifices for that. It is our only hope for a better future.

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