KABUL -- Universities in Kabul were almost empty on the first day of the Afghan school year as professors and students wrestled with the Taliban's restrictive new rules for classrooms.
The Taliban have promised a softer rule than during their first stint in power from 1996-2001, when women's freedoms in Afghanistan were sharply curtailed and they were banned from higher education.
This time, the hardline Islamist group has said women are allowed to attend private universities under the new regime, but they face tough restrictions, including on dress code.
Women may attend class only if they wear an abaya -- a flowing robe -- and a niqab -- a face veil with a small window to see through -- and they will be separated from men, the Taliban said.
"Our students don't accept this, and we will have to close the university," said Noor Ali Rahmani, the director of Gharjistan University in Kabul, on an almost empty campus on Monday (September 6).
"Our students wear the hijab, not the niqab," he added.
The Taliban education authority issued a lengthy document on Sunday outlining measures for classrooms, which segregate men and women, or divide them with a curtain if there are 15 students or fewer in a class.
"We said we didn't accept it because it will be difficult to do," Rahmani told AFP.
"We also said that it is not real Islam; it is not what the Koran says."
From now on, at private colleges and universities, which have mushroomed since the Taliban's first rule ended, women must be taught only by female professors or by "old male professors", and they must use a women-only entrance.
Women's classes must also end five minutes earlier than men's to stop them from mingling with their male peers outside the classroom.
The university posted a picture online of male and female students separated by a curtain to demonstrate new restrictions.
Images shared on Facebook by the university's department of economics and management showed six women wearing the hijab and ten male students with a grey curtain running between them, as a male lecturer was writing on a whiteboard.
So far, the Taliban have said nothing about public universities.
From 2001 to 2021, women made great strides in education and other parts of Afghan life. In Herat province in 2021, 56% of the 400 residents sitting for the Herat University entrance exam May 20-22 were women, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2020.
Provinces conducted literacy classes for women who had no chance to learn to read and write during the first Taliban era.
'Everything changed completely'
Usually, on the first day of the semester, the university's hallways would be packed with students catching up after the summer holidays.
But on Monday, there was a strikingly low turnout at Kabul's universities, leaving education leaders wondering just how many young, talented people have fled the country as part of the country's ongoing brain drain.
Only 10 to 20% of the 1,000 students who enrolled last year showed up to Gharjistan University on Monday, said Rahmani.
Up to 30% of the university's students left Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of the country, he estimated.
Reza Ramazan, a computer science teacher at the university, said women were particularly at risk when travelling to campus.
"It can be dangerous at checkpoints," he said. "The Taliban may check their phones and computers."
For 28-year-old computer science student Amir Hussein, "everything changed completely" after the Taliban takeover.
"Many students are not interested anymore in studying because they don't know what their future will be."
"Most of them want to leave Afghanistan," he said.