Afghanistan's Taliban-run administration said on Thursday it had closed universities to women partly due to female students not adhering to its interpretation of the Islamic dress code, in a decision that was condemned globally.
Female university students have turned away from campuses on Wednesday and the higher education ministry said their access would be suspended "until further notice". The move prompted strong condemnation from foreign governments and criticism from some Afghans, sparking protests in Afghan cities.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban were trying to sentence Afghanistan's women "to a dark future without opportunity" by barring them from attending universities.
Acting higher Education Minister Nida Mohammad Nadim, in his first comments on the matter, told Afghan state broadcaster RTA that several issues had prompted the decision, including female students not wearing appropriate Islamic attire and interaction between students of different genders taking place.
"They didn't observe Hijab (Islamic female dress code), they were coming with the clothes that mostly women wear to go to a wedding," he said.
Blinken called on the Taliban to reverse the ban.
"We are engaged with other countries on this right now. There are going to be costs if this is not reversed," the U.S. secretary of state told a news conference, declining to provide specifics. "We will pursue them with allies and partners."
U.S.-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 after 20 years of war as the Western-backed former government collapsed and the militants, who enforce a strict interpretation of Islam, seized Kabul.
Since the Taliban took over, students and professors say university classes have been separated by gender and female students have adjusted their attire to meet instructions such as covering their face and wearing dark colors.
Dozens of women gathered outside Kabul University on Thursday to protest in the first major public demonstration in the capital since the decision.
The higher education minister said in his interview that the Taliban "asked the world not to interfere in our affairs."
Nadim said discussions over female education were ongoing.
The Taliban-led administration had already drawn criticism including from foreign governments for not opening girls' high schools at the start of the school year in March, making a U-turn on signals it would do.
In a sign of stricter enforcement of restrictions on teenage girls' education, a letter from the education ministry on Thursday instructed all educational institutions not to allow girls above Grade 6 to access their facilities.
Though high schools in most provinces have been closed, some have remained open and many tutoring centers and language classes have been open to girls.
Nadim said religious education remained open to female students.
In the capital, about 50 mainly female protestors assembled outside Kabul University while holding banners and chanting: "Education is our right, universities should be opened."
The previous day students in Nangahar University in eastern Afghanistan also protested and male medical students walked out of exams protesting at their female classmates being excluded.
Large-scale protesting has become rare in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over the country, as they are often shut down forcefully by security agencies. The scattered protests that have occurred are a sign of the discontent the Taliban's policy has generated, advocates say.
On Thursday, the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy nations said gender persecution may amount to a crime against humanity, in a statement condemning the Taliban's decision on universities.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 following the al Qaeda attacks on the United States, and his wife, Laura, added their voices on Thursday to the criticism of the ban and the Taliban's treatment of women.
"Treating women as second-class citizens, depriving them of their universal human rights, and denying them the opportunity to better themselves and their communities should generate outrage among all of us," they said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Nadim said the Taliban-run administration respects women's rights in accordance with Islamic law.
The backlash towards restrictions on female education is complicating the Taliban-led administration's efforts to gain formal recognition and the lifting of sanctions that are hampering the economy, diplomats say.