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Taliban rule takes toll on Afghanistan’s academics — especially women

Students from the faculties of Engineering and Computer Science attend their graduation, Kandahar.

Female students in Afghanistan say discrimination has increased hugely in the past year.Credit: Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty

Life is growing increasingly unbearable for academics in Afghanistan, almost a year into the Taliban’s rule. It has become particularly tough for female scholars and students.

Since the Taliban seized power last August, the country has descended into a humanitarian crisis. Many Afghans are not getting enough food; there is continuing conflict between the Taliban and rival groups; and outbreaks of infectious disease are widespread. On top of these challenges, faculty members have no time or funding to do research, and face shrinking salaries and vanishing academic freedoms.

For female scholars, life under the Taliban means that most must wear garments that cover their head and body, and are restricted from teaching men. And female students cannot attend classes with men and are restricted from being taught by them. “The Taliban is making the situation worse and worse for women,” says a female university student and medical researcher in Kabul, who requested anonymity.

Nature has spoken to more than a dozen scholars, inside and outside Afghanistan. Most of those interviewed have asked for anonymity. They say that criticizing the authorities will put them, their families and their careers at too great a risk.

Many academics with international connections or financial resources have left the country, and many of those left behind are looking for a way out. “In the previous government, even though we had a lot of problems, including discrimination and corruption, at least we had hope that everything will become better,” says a former professor in Kabul, who fled after the Taliban’s ascent. “Now we have lost our hope,” she says.

Restrictive environment

After months of closure, public universities reopened in February and March, but on very different terms.

The Taliban appointed representatives to take over the management of public universities. Researchers say that on 5 May, the minister for higher education sent letters ordering these representatives to conduct faculty reviews and report on any staff members who have questioned the new rules. The loss of academic freedoms is like “living inside a cage”, says Ramin Mansoory, a legal scholar and former Afghan provincial-government adviser, now based in Poland.

Researchers have to spend much of their time teaching; many also say that their salaries have been cut by more than one-third and are not always paid on time. Research funds previously disbursed through international collaborations remain frozen, and the exodus of academics has placed an additional burden on those left behind. “My colleagues are teaching more than ever,” says physicist Baktash Amini, Afghanistan coordinator for the Physics Without Frontiers programme at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. Amini was also a lecturer at Kabul University until the Taliban takeover. He says that around 7 of the 17 lecturers in the university’s physics faculty have left the country. Other scholars report that their institutions have 20–40% fewer staff members than before the Taliban took charge.

In September, the higher-education minister was filmed saying that PhD and master’s degrees are not valued in today’s Afghanistan. “When I heard this, I was so discouraged,” says Amini, who will study for a PhD at the University of Freiburg in Germany, probably starting in July. He will be working on Higgs boson physics and the search for new physics using the ATLAS experiment at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. “Why have I been working so hard for so long?” he says.

Discrimination

The academic week has been split so that male and female students can be taught separately, for three days each.

Academics say this segregation, and the shortage of female lecturers, has reduced the quality of education, particularly for women. Some subjects have even been discontinued for female students, according to some scholars and students.

Women and people belonging to minority ethnic groups, such as Hazara and Tajik people, say they have been persecuted. Some have said they were fired for no valid reason, and feel unsafe working in the current environment. Many have chosen to leave. Even under the previous government, they faced discrimination, but “with the Taliban’s arrival, that discrimination is increased”, says the former professor in Kabul.

“Research is not a priority anymore,” says a physician and public-health researcher in Tehran, who describes a situation of widespread starvation, frequent explosions and psychological distress in her home city of Mazar-i-Sharif. She has completed her master’s degree in Tehran and been selected for a research position at a US institution, but is waiting for her visa.

Mass exodus

Thousands of scholars have fled to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan and have applied to organizations that help academics to find posts in other countries. But fewer than 10% have been successful, according to data collected by three of these agencies — Scholars at Risk (SAR), the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund and the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara) — and shared with Nature. Even fewer have managed to reach their host institutions, slowed down by the difficulty of getting documents, including passports and visas, for themselves and family members.

“Visa wait times have continued to be a challenge for many Afghan scholars,” says Rose Anderson, a director at SAR in New York City.

Many higher-education institutions remain eager to host Afghan scholars, but “the crisis in Ukraine is straining our already limited resources and capacity”, says James King, director of the Scholar Rescue Fund in New York City.

But Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of Cara in London, says institutions are creating new placements for Ukrainian scholars, not redirecting existing commitments. “The way the two crises have come so close together has further galvanized the university and research sectors,” he says.

But most students and scholars in Afghanistan cannot leave. They need financial and mental support, says Zainab Nazari, a physicist at the ICTP who is originally from Afghanistan. She has spoken to more than half a dozen scholars and students in the country. “People are so hopeless in this situation,” she says.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01505-5

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