Maryam, a 23-year-old political science student in Afghanistan, was finishing her university assignments on Tuesday evening, when her fiancé called to say that the Taliban had banned all women from universities.
“He told me, ‘I am very sorry, you will not be able to take your final exams; universities have closed for you.’ My heart has been bleeding since I heard those words,” she told Al Jazeera, choking back tears.
On Tuesday, the Taliban told all public and private universities to “[suspend] education of girls until further notice”, according to a statement issued by the Taliban’s Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim said.
The Taliban did not give a 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 by Taliban vehicles on Wednesday morning in an attempt to prevent women from entering campuses, several students told Al Jazeera.
The ban came after women in Afghanistan had taken university entrance tests in October.
Girls have already been banned from high schools since the Taliban seized control of the country last year.
Maryam, whose full name has been withheld to protect her identity, had spent the last two hours prior to the ban preparing for her exams scheduled in the coming days. She is in the last semester of a political science degree and had been determined to complete it despite the grim circumstances in the country.
“Every day I go to work, and then attend classes in the evenings, and study till late in the night, so I can achieve my dreams and serve my country,” she said.
“I have to send an essay to another university for a master’s 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 have been punished for having hopes and dreams,” she added.
The trauma of her loss was echoed by women across the country.
“I felt silent when I first heard the news. I still don’t have any words to describe the pain I feel in my heart,” said Sahar, a 22-year-old student of computer science, who requested her name be changed. She was in the last year of her course, and was hoping to apply for a master’s degree in the same field.
“I was looking for courses for further education, and was even considering foreign universities. Now, I feel like my future is no longer in my control,” she said.
“If I can’t study, my life is meaningless. It has no value.”
Only 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 banned from high school.
“We arranged 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 promising a softer stance on women’s issues, the Taliban have imposed increasingly harsh restrictions on women’s freedoms, rights and movement.
“To be honest, I am 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 onto even during all the loss and crises of the last 16 months.”
Madina is old enough to recall the last time the Taliban seized power in the 1990s, and can relate to the trauma Afghan students are going through.
“I lost many years of my education because of their ban last time they were in power. I continued learning in secret as many Afghan students do now, but it was a lot of hard work to pick up where we left off after the Taliban were gone. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone,” she said.
International agencies and governments have spoken out strongly against the ban.
“The world must reject, as Afghans have, that this is about culture or religion,” US Special Envoy Rina Amiri wrote on Twitter.
“In Afghan history, only the Taliban have enacted policies forbidding girls’ education. In no Muslim-majority country, in no place in the world, are girls denied an education,” she pointed out, urging the global community to take action against Taliban policies.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk also termed the ban as “unparalleled in the world”, adding that it comes “on top of girls being barred from attending secondary school, just think of all the female doctors, lawyers and teachers who have been, and who will be, lost to the development of the country”.
The effect of Taliban policies was laid out in a recent report by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which estimated that the exclusion of women from the economy could cost the country $1bn, or 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Since the takeover, women in Afghanistan have been prevented from participating in various sectors, marking a 21 percent drop in employment, according to the International Labour Organisation.
With universities shut, those figures are expected to rise.
It was long clear that the ban was coming, Madina said.
“Our female students were being stopped by the Taliban several times over the clothes they wore or even the colour of the fabric. I had been instructed to dismiss students if they didn’t follow the Taliban rules. Some of these restrictions we had to deal with were unbelievable,” she said, adding she had herself been stopped several times for travelling to the university without a male guardian, or “mahram”.
“I am unmarried, my father died long ago, and the Taliban killed my brother, my only mahram, in an attack 18 years ago. What am I supposed to do?”
Another professor, who only identified as Ahmad, added to Madina’s views.
“Female students were facing lots of challenges since last one year. They had to wear long and black clothing, they were not allowed to enter a male professor’s room or talk to a male professor outside of the class. They had to enter university only on specific days and times. They were not allowed to use smartphones, even for the purpose of photography,” he said.
“Even laughing loudly in the university wasn’t allowed.”
Picking up on these red flags, Ahmad had pushed them to finish their work as quickly as possible and prioritised the assessment of his female students – all of whom will graduate, despite this ban.
“But the future of so many other women hangs in the balance,” he said.
Afghan women are appealing to the Taliban to not politicise knowledge.
“As a Muslim woman, I am asking the Taliban for the right given to me in Islam,” Maryam said.
“They have to answer to the women of Afghanistan why they are doing this to us.”