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The Taliban bans women from attending universities in Afghanistan

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The sixth grade - right now in Afghanistan, if you are female, that's the highest level of education that you're likely able to attain. That's after the Taliban government suspended women from attending universities. To explain, we have NPR's Diaa Hadid on the line. She covers Afghanistan from her base in neighboring Pakistan. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Diaa, first of all, can you just start by explaining what happened today?

HADID: So what happened was there was an image of a government circular that was leaked online today, and it announced women were suspended from university. And then the spokesman of the Higher Education Ministry confirmed the news to NPR.

SUMMERS: OK. I understand that. But, Diaa, weren't girls already banned from attending school?

HADID: Yes and no. It's been a bit confusing. It's a patchwork. You see; after the Taliban seized power of Afghanistan over a year ago, they prevented most women and girls from attending high school. But because of a quirk in how they made that decision, women and girls were still able to attend college or university. So up to a few weeks ago, the Taliban even allowed women to undertake university entrance exams. So you had this weird situation where girls could attend primary school, they could attend university, but most couldn't attend high school. But now with this suspension, it looks like the highest level of education most Afghan girls will be able to attain is grade six. And that's when primary school ends in Afghanistan.

SUMMERS: Wow. At this point, have you heard from any Afghan women about the suspension?

HADID: Yeah. Two of them got in touch with me right away. And the first woman you'll hear - her name is Warrang. And she was about to wrap up her first year of her civil engineering degree when she heard the news.

WARRANG: It was my dream to become an engineer and serve my country. But such a decision made by Taliban has shattered by my dreams. I was in second semester. Today was the last exam, and we were going to join in the third semester after two or three days. I'm so sad. I'm so sad, and I have no words.

HADID: I also spoke to another female university student. Her name is Zahra. She also sent me a voice message in very precise English.

ZAHRA: What news could be worse than this? I am a final-year photography student. Now the Taliban took our last hope from us. The female student had their last exam tomorrow, but the Taliban closed the gates of universities to them. I've been shaking with anger. I can't even cry.

HADID: She can't even cry.

SUMMERS: Wow. Did any Taliban officials give a reason for this move?

HADID: So far, no. But it's been clear for a while now that hard-liners in the Taliban are calling the shots. And it may well be that the group needs to show their followers that they fought the Americans and other Afghans for two decades for something. And a tangible way of showing that is by pushing women back into their homes. This is an ultra-conservative movement. And the thing is that the Taliban don't have much else to show for their takeover. They face international isolation. The country's in an economic mess. Most Afghans are going hungry. And the Taliban are also facing a serious ideological challenge from the Islamic State, ISIS. So this might be a way of gesturing to their own followers that they are just as conservative.

SUMMERS: NPR's Diaa Hadid. Diaa, thank you.

HADID: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.