Taliban security forces used a water cannon to disperse women protesting the ban on university education for women on Saturday, eyewitnesses said, as the decision from the Taliban-led government continues to cause outrage and opposition in Afghanistan and beyond.
The development came after Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers on Tuesday banned female students from attending universities effective immediately. Afghan women have since demonstrated in major cities against the ban, a rare sign of domestic protest since the Taliban seized power last year.
According to eyewitnesses in the western city of Herat, about two dozen women on Saturday were heading to the provincial governor’s house to protest the ban, chanting: “Education is our right,” when they were pushed back by security forces firing the water cannon.
Video shared with AP shows the women screaming and hiding in a side street to escape the water cannon. They then resume their protest, with chants of “Disgraceful!”
One of the protest organisers, Maryam, said between 100 and 150 women took part in the protest, moving in small groups from different parts of the city toward a central meeting point. She did not give her last name for fear of reprisals.
“There was security on every street, every square, armored vehicles and armed men,” she said.
“When we started our protest, in Tariqi Park, the Taliban took branches from the trees and beat us. But we continued our protest. They increased their security presence. Around 11 a.m. they brought out the water cannon.”
A spokesman for the provincial governor, Hamidullah Mutawakil, claimed there were only four-five protesters. “They had no agenda, they just came here to make a film,” he said, without mentioning the violence against the women or the use of the water cannon.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the university ban, including from Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as warnings from the United States and the G-7 group of major industrial nations that the policy will have consequences for the Taliban.
An official in the Taliban government, Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim, spoke about the ban for the first time on Thursday in an interview with the Afghan state television. He said the ban was necessary to prevent the mixing of genders in universities and because he believes some subjects being taught violated the principles of Islam.
He said the ban would be in place until further notice.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule respecting rights for women and minorities, the Taliban have widely implemented their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, since they seized power in August 2021.
They have banned girls from middle school and high school, barred women from most fields of employment and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. Women are also banned from parks and gyms. At the same time Afghan society, while largely traditional, has increasingly embraced the education of girls and women over the past two decades.
Also Saturday, in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, dozens of Afghan refugee students protested against the ban on female higher education in their homeland and demanded the immediate reopening of campuses for women.
One of them, Bibi Haseena, read a poem depicting the grim situation for Afghan girls seeking an education. She said was unhappy about graduating outside her country when hundreds of thousands of her Afghan sisters were being deprived of an education.