A curtain divides male, female students as Afghan universities reopen

Students attend class under new classroom conditions at Avicenna University in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept 6, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

KABUL - Students across Afghanistan have started returning to university classrooms after the Taliban stormed to power, and in some cases females have been separated from their male peers by curtains or boards down the middle of the room.

What happens in universities and schools across the country will be closely watched by foreign powers for signs of what rights women will have now the Islamist militant movement is back in charge.

Some Western countries have said vital aid and recognition of the Taliban would depend on how they ran the country, including their treatment of girls and women.

When it last ruled from 1996-2001, the group banned girls from school and women from university and work.

Despite assurances in recent weeks that women's rights would be honoured in accordance with Islamic law, it is unclear what that will mean in practice.

Teachers and students at universities in Afghanistan's largest cities - Kabul, Kandahar and Herat - told Reuters that female students were being segregated in class, taught separately or restricted to certain parts of the campus.

"Putting up curtains is not acceptable," Anjila, a 21-year-old student at Kabul University who returned to find her classroom partitioned, told Reuters by telephone.

"I really felt terrible when I entered the class ... We are gradually going back to 20 years ago." Even before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Anjila said female students sat separately from males. But classrooms were not physically divided.

The Taliban said last week that schooling should resume but that males and females should be separated.

A Taliban spokesperson did not comment on the photograph of the segregated class or on what measures were to be put in place at universities.

But a senior Taliban official told Reuters that such dividers were "completely acceptable", and that Afghanistan had"limited resources and manpower, so for now it is best to have the same teacher teaching both sides of a class."

'Keep studying'

Photographs shared by Avicenna University in Kabul, and widely circulated on social media, show a grey curtain running down the centre of the classroom, with female students wearing long robes and head coverings but their faces visible.

It was not immediately clear whether the classroom dividers were the result of a Taliban directive.

Several teachers said there was uncertainty over what rules would be imposed under the Taliban, who have yet to form a government more than three weeks after they seized Kabul with barely a shot fired in anger.

Their return to power has alarmed some women, who fear they will lose the rights they fought for in the last two decades, in the face of resistance from many families and officials in the deeply conservative Muslim country.

A journalism professor at Herat University in the west of the country told Reuters he decided to split his one-hour class into two halves, first teaching females and then males.

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Of 120 students enrolled for his course, less than a quarter showed up at school on Monday. A number of students and teachers have fled the country, and the fate of the country's thriving private media sector has suddenly been thrown into doubt.

"Students were very nervous today," he said. "I told them to just keep coming and keep studying and in the coming days the new government will set the rules." Sher Azam, a 37-year-old teacher at a private university in Kabul, said his institute had given teachers the option of holding separate classes for men and women, or partitioning classrooms with curtains and boards.

But he was worried about how many students would come back, given the economic crisis the Taliban's victory has triggered.

"I don't know how many students will return to school, because there are financial problems and some students are coming from families who have lost their jobs".