Women in Afghanistan can continue to study in universities, including at post-graduate levels, but classrooms will be gender-segregated and Islamic dress is compulsory, the Taliban government's new higher education minister said Sunday.
The announcement came as a Taliban official said Qatar's foreign minister arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul — the highest level visitor since the Taliban announced their interim Cabinet. There was no immediate confirmation of the visit by Qatari officials.
Earlier Sunday, the higher education minister, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, laid out the new policies at a news conference, several days after Afghanistan’s new rulers formed an all-male government. On Saturday, the Taliban had raised their flag over the presidential palace, signaling the start of the work of the new government.
The world has been watching closely to see to what extent the Taliban might act differently from their first time in power, in the late 1990s. During that era, girls and women were denied an education, and were excluded from public life.
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The Taliban have suggested they have changed, including in their attitudes toward women. However, women have been banned from sports and the Taliban have used violence in recent days against women protesters demanding equal rights.
Haqqani said the Taliban did not want to turn the clock back 20 years. “We will start building on what exists today,” he said.
However, female university students will face restrictions, including a compulsory dress code. Haqqani said hijabs will be mandatory but did not specify if this meant compulsory headscarves or also compulsory face coverings.
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Gender segregation will also be enforced, he said. “We will not allow boys and girls to study together,” he said. “We will not allow co-education.”
Haqqani said the subjects being taught would also be reviewed. While he did not elaborate, he said he wanted graduates of Afghanistan's universities to be competitive with university graduates in the region and the rest of the world.
The Taliban, who subscribe to a strict interpretation of Islam, banned music and art during their previous time in power. This time around television has remained and news channels still show women presenters, but the Taliban messaging has been erratic.
In an interview on Afghanistan's popular TOLO News, Taliban spokesman Syed Zekrullah Hashmi said last week that women should give birth and raise children. While the Taliban have not ruled out the eventual participation of women in government, the spokesman said “it's not necessary that women be in the Cabinet.”
The Taliban seized power on Aug. 15, the day they overran Kabul after capturing outlying provinces in a rapid military campaign. They initially promised inclusiveness and a general amnesty for their former opponents, but many Afghans remain deeply fearful of the new rulers. Taliban police officials have beaten Afghan journalists, violently dispersed women's protests and formed an all-male government despite saying initially they would invite broader representation.
The new higher education policy signals a change from the accepted practice before the Taliban takeover. Universities were co-ed, with men and women studying side by side, and female students did not have to abide by a dress code. However, the vast majority of female university students opted to wear headscarves in line with tradition.
In elementary and high schools, boys and girls were taught separately, even before the Taliban came to power. In high schools, girls had to wear tunics reaching to their knees and white headscarves, and jeans, makeup and jewelry were not permitted.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted Sunday about the Qatari delegation, saying it included Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdur Rahman Al-Thani, the deputy prime minister who is also Qatar’s foreign minister.
The Qatari foreign minister met with Taliban Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund, Shaheen said. The Qatari delegation also met with former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the previous government’s chief negotiator in peace talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban have maintained a political office in the Qatar capital of Doha since 2013. Last week, Qatar Airways became the first international airline to begin operating international flights out of Kabul airport, transporting more than 250 foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, out of the capital.
Qatar has also provided technical assistance, along with Turkey, to restart the airport, which had been damaged by departing U.S. troops who left Afghanistan on Aug. 30 after evacuating tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the Taliban government faces enormous economic challenges with near daily warnings of an impending economic meltdown and a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations warns it could drive 97% of Afghans below the poverty level by the end of the year.
Thousands of desperate Afghans wait daily outside Afghanistan's banks for hours to withdraw the $200 weekly allotment. In recent days, the Taliban appear to have been trying to establish a system for allowing customers to withdraw funds but it rapidly deteriorates into stick-waving as crowds surge toward the bank gates.
Outside the New Kabul Bank, Afghanistan's first private bank established in 2004, nearly 2,000 people demanded their money Sunday.
For Zaidullah Mashwani, Sunday was the third day he had come to the bank hoping to get his $200. Each night the Taliban make a list of eligible customers for the following day and by morning Mashwani said a whole new list is presented.
“This is our money. The people have the right to have it,” he said. “No one has money. The Taliban government needs to do something so we can get our money.”