Options are limited for Afghan female students hoping to study
Afghan women and girls are seeking education opportunities outside of Afghanistan – but for many, numerous obstacles stand in their way.
24 Aug 2023
Image: Afghan Witness, 2022
*Afghan Witness changed the names of the individuals interviewed.
The Taliban’s restrictions on female education have seen universities around the world announce scholarship opportunities for Afghan women and girls, enabling hundreds to relocate to neighbouring or nearby countries, as well as campuses further afield.
Afghan Witness’s (AW) conversations with female Afghan students this year reveal that gaining these opportunities – or even leaving the country in the first place – is not so simple, however. They face both economic and language barriers, as well as the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s freedom of movement and travel.
Barred from language classes
Since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, girls’ secondary schools have remained closed in most parts of the country. Female students continued to attend gender-segregated university classes until December 2022, when the Taliban announced that women would no longer be able to attend university.
Before the university ban, some girls had continued to pursue education by taking language classes at universities and education centres, but when universities were closed in late December, AW heard from several students that they were barred from these classes, too.
Desperate to apply for scholarships outside the country, a student we’re calling Azadah* had been focusing on improving her English and Arabic since the Taliban’s return.
“When we heard about the ban on female education – we did not believe it and still went to our language course at the university,” says Azadah, adding that male students were allowed to take their exams that day, while females had to leave.
“This was very heart-breaking – seeing girls coming out of the university with their eyes full of tears."
Before the Taliban’s return, Azadah says she had been preparing to take the exam called Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) as she wanted to apply to The American University of Afghanistan.
“I was preparing for the university’s entrance exam or Kankor – I studied for two years to prepare for it – I wanted to get a high score and get into my favourite field.”
Sofia* told AW she too had been hoping to gain a qualification in English as a foreign language so she would be eligible to apply for Master's scholarships abroad. However, the day after the university ban, she says the Taliban turned her away from the educational institute where her classes were held, stating that women were no longer allowed to study English.
Mahnaz*, another student, had attended an English class at a private academic institution where students could train as teachers, but this closed along with universities in December.
“My favourite subject was English – because it would get me closer to my goals,” Mahnaz says, adding that she dreamed of becoming a famous football player.
“Now, that isn’t possible.”
Masooma* managed to leave Afghanistan, and is now studying at a university in Germany. She says that learning a foreign language is “essential” for those hoping to secure a scholarship abroad.
“The entire admission process in universities outside Afghanistan is conducted either in English or the country's native language," Masooma adds.
She has experienced first-hand how crucial language skills are – prospective scholarship candidates need to navigate the admissions process, engage with the universities and professors, and adapt to a new academic environment, and this is on top of having to comprehend lectures and write academic articles to a high standard in a foreign language.
Meanwhile, many women and girls face economic barriers to leaving Afghanistan, a country where it is estimated that 90% of the population is living below the poverty line.
One student, Frozan*, told us that her family want to send her abroad to continue her education, but can’t afford it.
“Even if they could, the ability to speak English is a barrier for many in Afghanistan,” she adds.
Restrictions on travel
For some Afghan women and girls, the challenge lies not only in acquiring a scholarship but in leaving the country in the first place.
Mahnaz says that she and her family had an opportunity to leave Afghanistan as her sister had an asylum case abroad.
“We had our passports ready and wanted to leave the country,” she explains.
But Mahnaz says that the family were denied Pakistani visas, which they needed in order to submit their applications to the necessary embassy in Pakistan. She adds that her sister was unable to travel alone because she was required by the Taliban to be accompanied by a male chaperone – known in Afghanistan as a mahram.
“We don't plan to leave the country as it is very difficult,” Mahnaz says.
In December 2021, a directive issued by the Taliban's Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice said women travelling for more than 45 miles (72km) by road should be accompanied by a mahram. In March 2022, the restriction appeared to be extended to air travel too, with sources telling Reuters that airlines in Afghanistan were instructed to prevent women from boarding domestic or international flights without a mahram.
Since then, there have been several reports of women being prohibited from boarding flights to continue their education abroad. In August 2022, Middle East Eye reported that the Taliban had prevented “scores” of female university students from boarding a flight to Qatar without male guardians.
On August 23, 2023, female students were reportedly prevented from travelling to Dubai, where they had been awarded scholarship places as part of a collaboration between Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor and the University of Dubai. In a video and written statement shared on X (formerly Twitter), Habtoor stated the news had left him “lost for words”, while Amnesty International also reposted the statement and condemned the incident.
In a voice recording shared by Habtoor online, one of the students claimed that even women accompanied by a mahram were prohibited from travelling. This was also reported by BBC Persian Journalist, Ali Hussaini, who said that there were 70 female students prevented from travelling from Kabul airport to Dubai that day, including 12 girls who were accompanied by a mahram.
Alternative ways of learning
With secondary schools and universities closed to female students, some educational institutes are offering online courses and scholarships for Afghan girls and women. As well as this, individuals are also pooling their resources to set up alternative ways of learning.
One woman, who we’re calling Azita*, decided to set up online classes for female students and saw more than 250 girls register an interest, in addition to over 30 offers of help from volunteers.
Learning in online spaces comes with its own set of challenges, however. Azita says she soon had to stop the classes because some students couldn’t afford access to the internet. While the classes have since resumed and she is now teaching the girls English, she says internet access and connectivity continue to pose a “major issue”. The online teacher says that even families who have access to the internet have to deal with limited devices, which is difficult when several daughters are trying to access online classes at the same time.
Challenges obtaining documents
Many of Azita’s students aspire to continue their studies or gain employment abroad, but she says they face numerous barriers. Not only are getting these opportunities difficult in the first place, but according to Azita, the Taliban have in some cases barred women from accessing their certificates and transcripts which they require for their applications.
“They are not letting them even get any recommendation letters from their professors – so it’s really hard for these girls to meet these requirements and leave the country.”
According to a report by Afghan news outlet Nimrokh Media, many female graduates have been unable to access their academic records or diplomas. At private universities, students are allegedly required to pay 10,000 Afghanis (around $115) for these documents, but the process can take several months, with students claiming they are given limited information or updates. Women have also reportedly faced obstacles applying for their passports.
Women’s rights activists have pointed out that restrictions on female education are damaging Afghanistan’s education sector, with women left with no choice but to seek opportunities abroad. Azita agrees:
“If there is a way for them to get a better life and better education – somewhere else other than Afghanistan – of course they would leave.”
*Afghan Witness changed the names of the individuals interviewed.