Ottawa urged to act after Taliban shuts women out of higher education

Afghan women and advocacy groups are urging the federal government to do more to support female students in Afghanistan after the Taliban imposed an open-ended ban on women attending universities.

The federal government has condemned the regime’s move as an “outrageous violation” of women's rights

Girls walk to their school along a road in Gardez, Paktia province in Afghanistan on September 8, 2022. (AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan women and advocacy groups are urging the federal government to do more to support female students in Afghanistan after the Taliban imposed an open-ended ban on women attending universities.

In a letter, Afghanistan's de-facto minister of higher education Neda Mohammad Nadeem has instructed the country's public and private universities to suspend "the education of females until further notice."

Western governments, including the U.S. and Canada, condemned the move within hours.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Taliban's action "indefensible," adding education is a human right and "essential to Afghanistan's economic growth and stability."

He also warned of unspecified consequences for the regime.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted that the Taliban was denying women and girls "the prospect of a better life."

"Equal access to education is a right to which every woman and girl is entitled," she wrote. "We condemn this outrageous violation."

But many are looking for something more than words from Ottawa. 

Friba Rezayee.
Afghanistan's first female Olympic judo contestant, Friba Rezayee, moved to Canada in 2011. She denounces the lack of similar opportunities for Afghan girls and women under the Taliban regime. ((submitted) )

Friba Rezayee is a former Afghan Olympian who arrived in Canada in 2011; she now helps other female Afghan athletes flee the Taliban through her organization Women Leaders of Tomorrow. She said the government of Canada needs to forge ties with non-governmental organizations in Kabul to support Afghan women.

"Those small grassroots organizations are still working and we are the people who have contacts and people on the ground, to make change, and also reach out to those women and families who are in need," she said. 

Like many western countries, Canada shut down its embassy in Kabul indefinitely after the Taliban completed its military takeover in August 2021.

Ottawa did appoint a senior official for Afghanistan, David Sproule, who has met with Taliban representatives more than a dozen times since. Together with other Global Affairs Canada staff and diplomats from other western countries, he has been pressing the regime on women's rights to education, the fight against terrorism and the need to extend safe passage for Afghans trying to leave the country.

Rezayee said those talks clearly went nowhere.

"The Canadian government has been very nice and patient with the Taliban," she said.

She pointed out that the regime shut girls out of high schools months ago.

"They are taking Afghanistan and Afghan women nearly three decades back," said Habiba Nazari, an applied sciences student at the University of British Columbia.

Nazari, who lives in Vancouver, fled Afghanistan before the Taliban's takeover — but her six sisters had to stay behind.

Now, she fears her younger sisters will never be able to attend university.

"They are really thinking about this — 'We are not going to school, we don't have any opportunity to attend any school, any program.' And they don't know about their future," she said.

Lauryn Oates works with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, a non-governmental organization that works to promote literacy and access to education in Afghanistan.

Men attend a university class in Afghanistan, while chairs for female students sit empty.
Male university students attend class next to a curtain separating males from females at a university in Kandahar Province on December 21, 2022. (AFP/Getty Images)

Her group is urging Ottawa to fund virtual schooling for girls and women shut out of the education system in Afghanistan, and to provide schooling for those who've moved on to third countries outside Canada. 

"Make sure that girls and women have access to alternative forms of education," she said.

Oates said she fears shutting girls and women out of school is only part of the Taliban's plan.

Her organization pointed to an Afghan newspaper, Hasht-e-Shubh, which published what appeared to be a leaked draft of a Taliban proposal for a new educational curriculum

CBC News has not independently verified this publication, but Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan suggested the Taliban wants "a complete ban on images of all living things, mention of music, television, elections, birthdays, radio" and "non-Islam figures such as scientists."

"Access is meaningless if you don't get a true education that actually means something that you can do something in your life with, that you have better life opportunities, better livelihood opportunities with," Oates said.

Asked to offer comment for this story, the federal government did not address the concerns raised by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan but pointed instead to Joly's tweet.


Raffy Boudjikanian

Senior reporter

Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.