In the latest blow to women’s rights in Afghanistan, the Taliban administration on December 20 barred female students from the country’s universities.

In a letter, Taliban’s Acting Minister of Higher Education Neda Mohammad Nadeem ordered public and private universities to immediately suspend the education of women in accordance with a cabinet order.

This comes even as thousands of Afghan women appeared for university entrance exams three months ago, with many aspiring to study engineering and medicine. But it is not the first time that the Taliban has tried to stop the education of women.

Since seizing power in August 2021 after the withdrawal of the American military and the fall of the Afghanistan government, the Taliban has enacted a series of repressive measures against women.

In September last year, shortly after the Taliban took control, girls were banned from attending schools. The Taliban repeatedly claimed that the ban was temporary, but in March it reneged on its promises to allow girls to attend secondary schools citing the lack of funds and seeking more time to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines.

Women were allowed to attend universities, though with strict regulations in place, such as gender-segregated classrooms, women only being taught by female professors or old men, and the burqa being mandatory. It remains unclear how many women were actually able to attend universities due to the new, severe rules that are announced almost every day.

In the past 16 months of the Taliban’s de facto rule, many Afghan women – who were raised in an era of relative opportunity and achieved great progress over two decades – have been made secondary citizens in their own country. They have been prohibited from appearing in public spaces without a male chaperone, pushed out of employment, and are required to cover up in public from head to toe, including their faces. In November, Afghan women were also banned from entering parks, funfairs, gyms and public baths.

The series of repressive measures has also served to threaten the influx of much-needed international aid that has kept the country from the brink of famine as it grapples with an economic collapse. But Tuesday’s decision has only made matters worse. The new ban on the education of girls has made clear the intent of the Taliban’s stance as it looks to reimpose all the restrictions on Afghan women the group had put in place during its regime in the 1990s. It has also provoked international condemnation.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he is “deeply alarmed” while former American envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, called it “shocking and incomprehensible”. British United Nations Ambassador Barbara Woodward said the suspension was another “egregious curtailment of women’s rights”.

Given the outcry, it is clear that the Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until it respects the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls.

At a time the country is grappling with a worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban, instead of excluding female students, should encourage women’s education and their contribution to the economy, aiding the development of the country. Economic recovery in Afghanistan will not be possible if nearly half of its population continues to be excluded.

The Taliban, thus, needs to realise that women’s education is a fundamental right and that it is in its own interest to facilitate the academic access of women. At the same time, the international community must move beyond lip service in the form of mere statements and act against the Taliban’s repressive rule to restore education opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan.

Akanksha Khullar is an independent scholar working on gender issues. Her Twitter handle is @akankshakhullar.