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WASHINGTON —De facto Taliban authorities have announced the reopening of state-run universities in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and several other cities, but say only male students will be allowed to attend.
"According to a decision by the Supreme Council for Higher Education," reads a short statement from the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education, "studies of the male students at governmental higher education institutions in the colder provinces will officially start from [March 6] of the current year."
Schools and universities go on annual winter break in about 24 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
The Islamist government banned higher education for female students last year, saying women had not appropriately observed gender-based religious restrictions under the prior government, which was backed by the United States.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban have also shut down secondary schools for female students, saying the ban is temporary.
"Taliban are running out of time to make a decision on reopening girls' secondary, high school and universities," said Orzala Nemat, an Afghan activist and researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. "This is the demand of the general public, community elders, religious scholars and even some of their own members feel embarrassed to support this un-Islamic and unjustified act."
Afghanistan is the only country where women and girls are officially barred from education and work, according to human rights groups.
The gender-based discriminatory policy has been maintained even while it costs hundreds of millions of dollars for Afghanistan's beleaguered economy, the United Nations has reported.
Possible internal divisions
Facing domestic and global condemnation, some Taliban officials have reportedly shown disapproval of the government's misogynistic policies.
"The Taliban leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, appears to insist upon these measures out of personal conviction and to assert his authority over the movement and the country," the International Crisis Group said in a report last month.
Not seen in public, Akhundzada is nevertheless revered as a god among the Taliban. He has no term limit and has unchecked powers over everything within the Taliban government.
"The Taliban are in an internal power struggle," said Pashtana Durrani, director of Learn Afghanistan, a nongovernment organization supporting education for girls and women.
"Right now, the Taliban are in a stalemate where they can't remove or impeach the amir, and the amir is a man who thinks women in schools and universities are haram," Durrani told VOA, using the Islamic term for forbidden.
For Farahnaz Forotan, a prominent female journalist who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban captured Kabul, the denial of education for girls and women is a sadistic power play by the Taliban leader with catastrophic consequences for millions of Afghans.
"How can a poor country compensate for two years of no education for girls? The losses are catastrophic and irreparable," said Forotan, who spoke to VOA from her home in the U.S. state of Maryland.
Cracking down on internal dissent, the Taliban have defied international calls, including from renowned Islamic institutions, to lift the bans on women's work and education, saying the world should not interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
"It's an Islamic obligation and in the national interest of Afghanistan to have its women as educated as its men," said the University of London's Nemat. "A well-educated new generation of women and men will eventually ... dismantle the vicious cycle of colonialism in the country where our political leaders become a pawn in the hands of the superpowers of their time."