Online Universities Offer Afghan Women Covert Access to Education

Despite the inherent risks and limited career opportunities, Afghan women are pursuing college degrees thanks to online universities eager to combat social injustice.
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  • The Taliban recently banned access to higher education for women in Afghanistan.
  • In response, some online universities are offering free courses and programs to Afghan women.
  • These women must keep their educational pursuits secret for fear of reprisal.

Last month's edict from the Taliban prohibiting women from studying at universities sent shockwaves throughout that country and sparked worldwide outrage.

But some online universities are offering Afghan women a glimmer of hope: an opportunity to pursue a college education — despite the inherent risks.

The Taliban Bans Education for Women

In December, a letter released by the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education officially banned women from attending universities. The move furthered the Taliban's efforts to deprive women and girls of human rights.

Since regaining power in Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban has continued to marginalize women and girls. Women are prohibited from parks and gyms, must wear head-to-toe clothing when in public, and face limited employment opportunities. They also must be accompanied by a male "guardian" while traveling.

Education restrictions have been especially harsh. Girls are banned from attending middle school and high school, capping educational access at the sixth grade.

Until recently, women were allowed to attend universities in gender-segregated classes. But now, half the population can no longer pursue higher education.

"The U.S. condemns the Taliban's indefensible decision to ban women from universities, keep secondary schools closed to girls and continue to impose other restrictions on the ability of women and girls in Afghanistan to exercise their human rights," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement posted on Twitter.

This latest decision reverses the progress women made over the past two decades. Under a U.S.-backed government, Afghan society embraced education for women. Following the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, the Taliban began systematically restricting women's rights, including educational opportunities.

The ban affects tens of thousands of female students whose university journeys were suddenly halted. And it has implications for Afghanistan's 140 private universities, many of which might close as a result.

"I have nothing to say," an 18-year-old female journalism student told The Guardian. "Not only me, but all my friends have no words to express our feelings. Everyone is thinking about the unknown future ahead of them. They buried our dreams."

Online Universities Offer Hope

Yet those dreams may yet contain a glimmer of hope.

Some online universities are providing Afghan women access to higher education, along with scholarship aid.

The University of the People (UoPeople), an American online university founded in 2009 to expand educational opportunity worldwide, is offering Afghan women full scholarships to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees. According to a statement shared with BestColleges, more than 10,000 Afghan women have applied for these scholarships, and over 2,000 have been awarded.

Before the Taliban edict, UoPeople enrolled about 170 Afghan women and men. Also counted among the university's 126,000 students are Syrians, Rohingyas, and Iranians, along with some 500 Ukrainians who've received similar scholarship aid following their country's Russian invasion.

UoPeople's president, Shai Reshef, told BestColleges that Afghan women are "just one more population that needs our help."

The university is raising private funds to underwrite additional scholarships. Reshef said UoPeople would offer aid to all 10,000 students if it could.

"I think other universities should do the same," he said.

Scholarship recipients naturally are grateful for this newfound opportunity to pursue a college education. A computer science student — individuals remain anonymous for fear of reprisal — refused to abandon her dreams following the Taliban's decree.

"I will not give up on my dreams, nor will I let someone else decide my destiny," she said. "I will break this cage of darkness and heartache even if it takes my life."

In a similar move, several British universities are providing Afghan women free courses through the online learning platform FutureLearn. Students can choose from 1,200 courses offered by more than 20 institutions.

"While this is of course no silver bullet — poor connectivity, poverty and language barriers mean many women may not be able to access the material — it can nonetheless play a valuable part in enabling women in Afghanistan to assert their inalienable human right to education," said Jo Johnson, chairman of FutureLearn.

Opportunity Comes With Risk

Universities and students alike remain aware of the risks involved in flouting the Taliban's rule. Women must keep their online educational activities private — hence the need for anonymity.

"We tell [students] don't ever leave your home, don't tell anyone that you study," Reshef said. "Use a fake name. Just make sure you are secure."

As such, these students consider themselves "prisoners in their own country," Reshef said.

"I don't have freedom," a 20-year-old female UoPeople student said, "and I can't live without learning."

To spread word of the scholarship opportunity, the university relied on word-of-mouth efforts by current students and alumni living in Afghanistan, international nongovernmental organizations, news media, and social media, Daniel Kalmanson, UoPeople's vice president for public affairs, noted in an email to BestColleges.

"We do not have a way of preventing the Taliban from learning that we are offering scholarships to Afghan women, but we have taken a number of steps to protect the students' identities from being revealed," he said.

What remains somewhat unclear is the full extent of the Taliban's sanction. The language specifically mentions Afghanistan universities but doesn't necessarily preclude the pursuit of educational opportunities elsewhere.

Yet Kalmanson pointed out that travel restrictions make study abroad options next to impossible for Afghan women. He mentioned that many students who tried to obtain high school transcripts, college transcripts, or passports said they were denied and even attacked for requesting these essential documents.

"I can say that online universities such as UoPeople are their best and safest option," Kalmanson said.

Long-Term Implications of the Educational Ban

What happens to a nation that prohibits education for half its population? The long-term social and economic health of Afghanistan can't be promising.

"It's horrible," Reshef said. "The country is literally walking backward every day. … Any country that will ban … women from education has no future because you need all people to be part of the economy."

Reshef speculates that once they earn degrees from UoPeople and other online programs, Afghan women likely will be limited to online — and covert — employment opportunities.

And by stemming the educational pipeline for girls, the Taliban is ensuring that increasingly fewer women will be prepared for a university education in years to come. Reshef calls them the "lost generation."

For now, despite the ban, despite having to resort to clandestine maneuvers to study online, despite social apartheid and limited career opportunities, many Afghan women persist. Reshef believes their efforts signal the indomitability of the human spirit.

"I think they [pursue studies] in order to enrich themselves," he said, "to feel that they are part of the world, to believe there is still a future."