Stolen education: What’s happened since Taliban banned women from university in Afghanistan

Click to play video: 'Female Afghani students seeking, competing for scholarships in Canada'
Female Afghani students seeking, competing for scholarships in Canada
WATCH: This week marks one year since the Taliban banned women in Afghanistan from attending post-secondary schools. It's part of a crackdown on women and girls' rights, where they are not allowed to learn, work or even go to beauty salons. To escape all of this, a growing number of female Afghan students are seeking scholarships in Canada. But as Global’s Shogofah Danish reports, there are many roadblocks and not too many spots – Dec 24, 2023

Zahra Rajabi started her first year of journalism school in December 2022, but just a few weeks into the semester classes were abruptly cancelled.

“We completely said goodbye to each other, crying,” she told Global News.

The 20-year-old from Kabul is one of millions of Afghan women and girls deprived of their right to learn. This week marks one year since the Taliban abruptly banned women from universities, making Afghanistan the world’s only country with restrictions on female education.

“I had a lot of ambitions and dreams and plans,” Rajabi said.

Those plans are on hold indefinitely.

Last year’s ban is part of an escalating crackdown since the Afghan government fell in August 2021 and the Taliban seized control. Months after the takeover, the Taliban barred girls from going to school. Next, it targeted higher education, outlawing them from post-secondary institutions.

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Hadia Nasiri was in her second year of engineering at Kabul Polytechnic University when women were suddenly shut out.

Since then, the 20-year-old said she has struggled with depression, trapped at home, and robbed of an education. The Taliban is trying to “destroy” women and girls, she told Global News.

“We cannot decide our future.”

How Canadian organizations are teaching women in secret

The non-profit organization Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan advocates for women and girls in Afghanistan and is finding ways to reach those desperate to learn.

It connects them with online courses and reliable internet; something often out of reach for female students in impoverished and rural areas.

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“One of the most important things that we do, which is actually really, really simple, is give computers and net packages so that women and girls can study online,” said Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

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Click to play video: '‘I don’t feel safe here’: Women face crippling restrictions under Taliban rule in Afghanistan'
‘I don’t feel safe here’: Women face crippling restrictions under Taliban rule in Afghanistan

Canadian universities and colleges are also trying to fill the void by opening up online programs to Afghans.

“Lots of women were halfway through a degree or certificate or diploma program when their education was interrupted,” Oates said.

Online courses remain one of the only options for the foreseeable future.  The Taliban’s attack on education for women and girls has triggered worldwide condemnation, but there are no signs it will end.

“This is really the same version of the Taliban from the 1990s,” Oates said. “Their vision was to revert back to all of the same discriminatory policies.”

Why learning English can put women in danger

Even if Afghan women complete virtual courses, there are almost no career prospects in the country.

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Women are disappearing from daily life; they are barred from going to work, national parks, and even beauty salons, and are forced to rely almost entirely on men.

With no hope of returning to campus in Kabul, Rajabi said she believes her only option is going abroad. She is learning English, but even that comes with risk.

Click to play video: 'Nearly 2 years into Taliban rule, Ottawa protest demands justice for Afghan women and girls'
Nearly 2 years into Taliban rule, Ottawa protest demands justice for Afghan women and girls

Once barred from university, Rajabi started taking English classes at a language centre in the capital, but that too came to an end. The Taliban told her and other students learning a “foreign language” was not “Islamic” and ordered the centre to close.

Rajabi is now teaching herself English and applying for scholarships outside the country.

Why studying in Canada can be out reach

Canada has settled 40,000 Afghan refugees in the past two years, but getting a student visa approved can be like winning the lottery.

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Oates said immigration officers often reject applications because they doubt Afghan students will leave when their visas expire.

“They apply to come as a student. But the immigration officer believes that they intend to stay and settle in Canada, so they should be applying another way,” she said. “But of course, there are very limited pathways.”

Given those limited pathways, Oates said she wants Canada to make it easier to study here and stay.

“Imagine living in a war zone and facing all the odds and they manage to get into a university abroad… then they’re turned down for student visas,” she said. “So that’s something that really has to change.”

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