HERAT -- Following the indefinite closure of universities for Afghan girls late last year, a group of London-based educated and activist Afghan women launched the Woman Online University.
Tens of thousands of girls were deprived of education and forced to stay home after the closure of universities for girls in December 2022.
In the past five months, 8,250 girls have enrolled in the online university and continued their education.
They study medicine, economics, psychology, law and political science, literature, agriculture, education, engineering, journalism, computer science, and other subjects.
There are 250 male and female lecturers both inside and outside Afghanistan who teach online, said Farida Haidari, deputy director for administration of the Woman Online University, based in France.
"When the universities were closed for girls, we decided to provide a viable alternative for them to continue their education," she said. "We started the online university so that girls across 34 provinces of the country can continue their education from their homes."
Girls can apply to the university through its social media pages and they are placed in classes according to their field of study, Haidari said.
"Education at the Woman Online University is free for all girls," she said. "They connect daily to their classes via Zoom and Google Meet and take their lessons. Teachers are also volunteers and teach for free."
The girls studying at Woman Online University will receive graduation certificates upon the completion of their studies, Haidari added.
'A glimmer of hope'
The Woman Online University offers a window of hope for girls who are otherwise deprived of education and for whom the gates of universities are shut.
Zohra Azizi, 20, a second-year economics student at Balkh University, said she is very happy to be able to continue her education at the Woman Online University.
"Qualified lecturers teach daily according to their schedule across different fields of studies," she said. "The teaching level is high and I feel like I am studying in a university classroom."
"I call on all girls deprived of attending universities to join the Woman Online University and continue their education," she said. "Women should never give in to restrictions and should realise their dreams and aspirations through education and knowledge."
In the current situation in which schools and universities are closed for girls, continuing education virtually is the right approach and girls should turn restrictions into opportunities, Azizi said.
The ban on girls' education is the greatest injustice Afghan girls face, said Najma Samkani, 25, a resident of Paktia province and a fifth-year medical student at Kabul University.
"When I was denied the right to study, I stayed at home for several months and cried day and night," she said. "I have been studying for 18 years and would have graduated from medical school in two years and would have become a doctor."
"When the university was closed, I felt like I was dead and turned into a soulless body," she added.
Afghan girls' resilience and their resistance against the harsh restrictions imposed on them is the struggle of right against wrong, Samkani said.
"I am very happy about the opportunity to study again," she said. "Woman Online University is a glimmer of hope amid the height of despair."
Calls to reopen educational centres
Suraya Ayoubi, 22, a first-year law and political science student at Herat University, has been confined to her home for around six months.
She said she and all other girls want an end to the ban on girls' education.
"I wait impatiently every day for news in the media of universities being reopened, but the continued restriction is very disappointing," Ayoubi said. "It is very difficult to live in such an uncertain situation and be deprived of our given rights."
With the closure of her university, she said she sees her 14 years of hard work and dreams being destroyed.
"The United Nations and powerful countries should use their power and influence to exert pressure so that universities are reopened for girls," she added.
Sadaf Akhtarzada, a fourth-year economics student at Herat University, is excited to enroll in online classes.
She would have graduated and had a job and income by now if girls and women were not banned from education and work, she said.
"We don't know what sin we have committed that we are being deprived of our Islamic and human right," she said. "We have always observed the hijab at the university and besides science we studied Islamic subjects, but ironically we are deprived of our Islamic right in the name of Islam."
"Every country is built by its educated men and women," Akhtarzada added. "A country cannot progress when women are deprived of education."
Every day that passes with the ban on girls' education, Afghanistan takes one step backwards and remains behind other countries, she said.
"Universities must reopen for the sake of Afghanistan's progress and the improvement of Afghans' lives."