UAE and Saudi Arabia condemn Taliban ban on female university education in Afghanistan

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says decision will 'come with consequences for the Taliban'

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The UAE and Saudi Arabia have led international condemnation of a decision by the Taliban to ban women from attending universities in Afghanistan.

Institutions were told on Tuesday to implement the ban as soon as possible. The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation said the decision jeopardised international efforts to engage with the Taliban in the interest of the Afghan people.

“The UAE reaffirms that this decision, as well as the earlier bans on girls from accessing secondary education, violate fundamental human rights, contravene the teachings of Islam, and must be swiftly reversed,” said the ministry in a statement carried by official news agency Wam.

Lana Nusseibeh, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation and UAE Permanent Representative to the UN, said: "The decision is the latest example of the restrictions imposed on Afghan women and girls since August 2021 aimed at their erasure from public life."

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on the Taliban to “reverse this decision, which raises astonishment in all Islamic countries”.

A letter shared by the spokesman for the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education, Ziaullah Hashmi, on Tuesday told private and public universities to implement the ban as soon as possible and to inform the ministry once the ban is in place.

It is the latest among increasing restrictions on women's rights since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, after the US-led international withdrawal in 2021.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said he was disappointed. “I still think the easiest path to our goal — despite having a lot of setbacks when it comes to women’s education and other things — is through Kabul and through the interim government,” he added.

The ban is meeting with resistance within Afghanistan. Male students left exams early in protest and women gathered outside locked institutions to chant and demonstrate.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that no other country in the world bars women and girls from receiving an education.

“The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of all in Afghanistan,” he said. “This decision will come with consequences for the Taliban.”

Richard Bennett, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, said the move was a "new low" and called for a reversal.

Abdallah Abdallah, a senior leader in Afghanistan’s former US-allied government, described universal education as a fundamental right.

“Depriving girls of this right is regrettable,” Mr Abdallah wrote in a tweet. He urged the country’s Taliban leadership to reconsider the decision.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak referred to his own daughters, saying he "cannot imagine a world in which they’re denied an education".

"The women of Afghanistan have so much to offer. Denying them access to university is a grave step backwards," he said.

Afghan political analyst Ahmad Saeedi said the decision by the Taliban may have closed the door to them winning international acceptance.

“The issue of recognition is over,” he said. “The world is now trying to find an alternative. The world tried to interact more but they [the Taliban] don’t let the world talk to them about recognition.”

Mr Saeedi said he believed most Afghans favoured female education because they consider learning to be a religious command contained in the Quran.

He said the decision to bar women from universities was probably made by a handful of senior Taliban figures, including the leader, Hibatullah Akhunzada, who is based in the south-western city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

He said the main centre of power is Kandahar, rather than the Taliban-led government in Kabul, even if the ministers of justice, higher education and so-called “virtue and vice” would also have been involved in the decision to ban women from universities.

Last month, UN experts said that the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan may amount to a crime against humanity and should be investigated and prosecuted under international law.

They said the Taliban actions against females deepened existing rights offences — already the “most draconian globally” — and may constitute gender persecution.

Updated: December 22, 2022, 5:42 AM