KABUL -- Afghan universities reopened on Monday (March 6) after a winter break, but only men returned to class with the "heartbreaking" ban on women in higher education still in force.
The university ban is one of several restrictions imposed on women since August 2021 and has sparked global outrage -- including across the Muslim world.
"It's heartbreaking to see boys going to the university while we have to stay at home," said Rahela, 22, from Ghor province.
"This is gender discrimination against girls because Islam allows us to pursue higher education. Nobody should stop us from learning."
Authorities imposed the ban after accusing female students of ignoring a strict dress code and a requirement to be accompanied by a male relative to and from campus.
Most universities had already introduced gender-segregated entrances and classrooms, as well as allowing women to be taught only by female professors or elderly men.
"It's painful to see that thousands of girls are deprived of education today," said Mohammad Haseeb Habibzadah, a computer science student at Herat University.
"We are trying to address this issue by talking to lecturers and other students so that there can be a way where boys and girls could study and progress together."
Ejatullah Nejati, an engineering student at Kabul University, said it was a fundamental right of women to study.
"Even if they attend classes on separate days, it's not a problem. They have a right to education, and that right should be given to them," he said as he entered the university campus.
At Kabul's private Rana University, male students trickled back to classes on Monday.
"My sister, unfortunately, cannot come to the university. She is trying to study at home," said Ebratullah Rahimi, a journalism student.
Posters dating from before the ban showing how women needed to dress were still on display in the university corridors.
Standing for women's rights
Several officials say the ban on women's education is temporary, but despite promises, they have failed to reopen secondary schools for girls, which have been closed for more than a year.
There have been a litany of excuses for the closure, from a lack of funds to the time needed to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines.
The reality, according to some officials, is that ultra-conservative clerics are deeply sceptical of modern education for women.
The authorities want women to remain uneducated, Waheeda Durrani, a journalism student in Herat until she was barred from university last year, said.
"If Afghan girls and women get educated, they will never accept a government that exploits Islam and the Koran," she said.
"They will stand for their rights. That's the fear the government has."
Women and their supporters face an uphill battle.
In December, a professor in Kabul caused a storm by quitting and tearing up his diplomas on live television to protest the ban on women in universities.
"I'm raising my voice. I'm standing with my sisters... My protest will continue even if it costs my life," said Ismail Mashal, a lecturer in journalism for more than a decade at three universities in Kabul.
"As a man and as a teacher, I was unable to do anything else for them, and I felt that my certificates had become useless. So, I tore them up," he told AFP December 30 at his office in Kabul.
He then handed out hundreds of free books to girls and women across Kabul until his arrest on February 2, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported.
"As the schools and universities are closed, I want these books to be distributed to impoverished Afghans," he told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, just hours before his arrest.
Several local media outlets reported last Thursday that Mashal had been released, but one of his relatives named Farid, who is also a lecturer, debunked the news, according to Khaama Press.
Rumours have been circulating on social media, but Mashal is still in detention, he said.