Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have blocked young women from taking college entrance exams for a wide range of subjects, with one student saying the Islamic extremist group has deemed many topics “too difficult for women to handle.” Several female students told CBS News that they and their peers were not allowed to take exams for university majors including engineering, economics, veterinary medicine, agriculture, geology, and journalism.
Meena, one of the high school graduates who took recent college entrance exams, wanted to study economics, but said she wasn’t allowed to choose the topic and was left with literature as her only option.
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“I was so hopeless that at one time, I started crying and decided to leave my paper for them to decide which field I should study,” she told CBS News in a telephone interview from her home in eastern Afghanistan. “Then I chose literature, only because my family invested in my education over the past 12 years, and I could not let them down.”
Another student, in western Herat province, said she wanted to study civil engineering but found that major removed from the list of options presented to her when she showed up for the exams.
“I’ve been studying hard and preparing for the field of my choice for the past two years, but these oppressors and enemies of women don’t even let us study what book we want. Where is the justice?” she asked through sobs over the phone. “They say these fields are too difficult for women to handle, and instead women should learn how to raise better children.”
Maryam, a survivor of the bloody suicide bombing at the KAAJ education center in Kabul, which targeted young women preparing for their exams, said she wanted to study journalism to help give a voice to her people. She was forced to choose pharmacology instead, a major she said she had no interest in pursuing.
“The result of this exam is not important for me,” Maryam said. “I’m glad this exam is over, which shows our resilience, and I will wait and try next year.”
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A spokesman for the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education, which oversees the nation’s universities, did not respond to repeated CBS News requests for comment on this story.
The Taliban regime has yet to be formally recognized as a legitimate government by any country since the group reclaimed power over Afghanistan in August 2021. In just over a year, the hardliners have dealt a major blow to Afghan women and girls, whose rights had increased significantly during 20 years of U.S.-backed governance. Girls aged 12 and above have been banned from attending virtually all public schools, women have been forced to leave their jobs in most government ministries, female journalists and guests must appear on TV with a face covering, and parks and classrooms have been segregated by sex.
Most of the women who participated in the recent university exams graduated from high school before the Taliban’s takeover 14 months ago.
Despite all the backsliding on women’s rights, the Taliban’s supreme leader apparently still isn’t content with the imposition of the group’s draconian interpretation of Islamic Shariah law.
On Monday, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada ordered his intelligence officials to fully implement an edict he issued earlier this year relating to women.
Paying “special attention to the implementation of Sharia, all officials will give me an account of how much Sharia has been implemented in the one year of our government, and fully implement my six-point edict on women’s rights,” he said in a statement.
The edict focused largely on the Taliban’s requirement for women and older girls to wear the hijab in public, covering their hair and bodies. In it, Akhundzada offered the advice that, “not leaving home unnecessarily is the best way to observe hijab.”
In response to the repression of women’s rights, the U.S. government recently announced new sanctions barring current and former Taliban members behind actions “restricting access to secondary or higher education for girls and women, preventing women’s full participation in the workforce and their ability to choose their career” from traveling to the United States. The Biden administration called on its allies to follow suit.
In an apparent response to the U.S. visa restrictions, Akhundzada released an audio message on Thursday declaring the Taliban’s desire to foster relations with all nations, “within the framework of Sharia and the interests of our people.”
He vowed that the Taliban regime would “remove all un-Islamic laws and institutions created over the past 20 years, regardless of the outside pressure.”
Students like Maryam, holding out hope for another opportunity to chose their own futures, will take little heart in the words of their unelected leader.