South Asia

Had No Other Option, Says Afghan Teacher Who Resigned After Women Barred From Universities

"When half of the students are not coming to university, one has to show this regime in power that we will not accept all your decisions," says Obaidullah Wardak.

New Delhi: When news filtered out earlier this week that Afghan women were banned from universities, it led to an immediate visceral reaction from thousands of Afghans at home and abroad. As women were turned away from universities, many of them broke into tears. A few dozen women protested against the move at Kabul University, risking great danger as mass protests are often shut down forcefully by security agencies. At Nangahar University, male medical students walked out of exams as a mark of protest at their female classmates being excluded.

Simultaneously, lecturers in educational institutions across Afghanistan also expressed outrage at the development – by putting in their papers.

Among the first to announce his resignation from Kabul University, Obaidullah Wardak’s tweet went viral on Wednesday, where he wrote that he opposed “this brutal clampdown on girls’ education even if I have to stand alone”.

Speaking on the phone to The Wire, Wardak said that it had “definitely not been an easy step”. 

While his original tweet talked about the willingness to take a solitary decision, he found that others across the war-ravaged country also felt the same way as him. “According to my calculation, at least 61 other teachers across Afghanistan in both public and private universities have also resigned,” he said on Friday evening. It was a sharp rise from just a dozen on Tuesday evening.

The 29-year-old teacher has worked in Kabul University’s department of mathematics for nearly a decade. “My life’s wish has always been to be an academician and work in the university. I did my PhD just to become an assistant professor at the university. So this was a tough decision for me, but I felt that there was no option,” he said

Currently on study leave to pursue his PhD in applied mathematics at South Asian University, Wardak was among those willing to work with the Taliban to ensure that Afghan students had a decent education.

“In the university where I work, there are around 27,000 students. Because of our students, we said that we will accept some regulations. Before this decision, there were a lot of other wrong decisions like segregation of classes and not giving a chance to women to choose all the fields,” he said.

The announcement on Tuesday was the last straw. “But the last decision that girls should be stopped and banned from universities was a critical point for me. When half of the students are not coming to university, one has to show this regime in power that we will not accept all your decisions. We can’t do anything else, but we can at least leave the university and not go there.”

Afghan women chant slogans in protest against the closure of universities to women by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 22, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

When the Taliban had been engaged with the United States in peace talks in 2020, it had projected a more progressive narrative by issuing statements that the insurgent group would guarantee the rights of all Afghans but never articulated any concrete policies.

After the takeover in August 2021, the Taliban issued a number of restrictions which largely erased Afghan women from public life. Currently, the Taliban have allowed girls to be educated only till sixth grade, which is the primary level.

There has been a torrent of condemnations from world capitals, including from the Muslim world. There was outright condemnation by countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Indian government expressed “concern” at the Taliban regime’s ban on women students in higher education. 

“I am happy that at least there is a statement but expect some more steps to put pressure on the current regime to change and revert their decisions,” said Wardak.

Two days after the announcement, the Taliban acting minister of higher education, Neda Mohammad Nadim, finally came in public to give his justification in an interview with the state-run television channel RTA. 

The four “reasons” that he cited are the presence of women at dormitories and their arrival from provinces without male companions, lack of observation of hijab by students, the continuation of co-education, and the existence of some faculties for girls that are in contrast with the “Islamic law and Afghan pride, as quoted by Tolo News.

Dismissing the “reasons”, Wardak said there was no formal consultation over this decision, which seems to have been taken by a small circle of Taliban leaders. On the Taliban minister’s claim that women’s education is un-Islamic, he pointed out that the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar university had strongly challenged this assertion.

Wardak pointed out that the decision to ban girl students also meant that women professors would also be not allowed to work. “if there are no female students, then there is no need for female faculty. This decision means that half of the workforce has already been forced to leave”.

He has not been back in Kabul since the Taliban takeover last year but has kept tabs on the deteriorating environment in the university campus. “The university is like a military base because there are so many security people around. They are afraid of any protests, so they are not allowing two or three people to sit and talk together”.

While Wardak is in India on scholarship with his wife and son, his parents and siblings remain in Afghanistan. “It is a tough decision because of my family also. They are not happy about me speaking out. They are keeping a low profile, staying at home, not going out,” he says.

He still has one more year to complete his doctorate, but Wardak is nervous about returning to Afghanistan – even though that’s his ultimate plan.

“I haven’t decided until now. I want to go back, but I will check the security situation. There could be some problems for me and my family. I have been getting some unofficial warnings that when you come here, we will see. But my plan is still to go back there. Just waiting to see how things develop,” said Wardak, worriedly.