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Prof Ismail Mashal

“I call on fathers to take the hands of their daughters and walk them to school, even if the gates are shut.”

Professor Ismail Mashal, who runs a private university in Kabul, says he has had enough of the restrictions women face in Afghanistan.

Slender and well dressed, he is a mixture of defiance and raw emotion.

“Even if they’re not allowed in – they should do this daily. It’s the least they can do to prove they are men,” tells me, holding back tears.

“This is not me being emotional – this is pain. Men must stand up and defend the rights of Afghan women and girls.”

In December the Taliban government announced female students at universities would no longer be allowed back – until further notice. They said they were doing this to enable them to create an Islamic learning environment aligned with Sharia law practices, including changes to the curriculum.

Not long after the ban was announced, Prof Mashal went viral on social media after tearing up his academic records live on television, saying there was no point in gaining an education in today’s Afghanistan.

He says he won’t stay silent on the issue.

“The only power I have is my pen, even if they kill me, even if they tear me to pieces, I won’t stay silent now,” Prof Mashal says.

“I know what I am doing is risky. Every morning, I say goodbye to my mother and wife and tell them I may not return. But I am ready and willing to sacrifice my life for 20 million Afghan women and girls and for the future of my two children.”

Prof Mashal’s university had 450 female students studying there and they took courses in journalism, engineering, economics and computer science. The Taliban’s education minister says these degrees should not be taught to women because they are against Islam and Afghan culture.

Prof Ismail Mashal

Prof Mashal says he could have kept his institution open for male students only – but instead decided to shut it completely.

“Education is either offered to all, or no one. The day I closed the doors of my institution, I was in a lot of pain.

“These people are playing with the future of our girls. My students call me and ask me when I think they’ll be able to go back.

“I have no answers for them. I have no answers for my 12 year old daughter who won’t be able to go to high school next year. She continues to ask me what crime she has committed?”

Since appearing on TV, he has received many threats. Despite this, Prof Mashal appears on local media almost daily.

He’s hoping his advocacy will lead to a nationwide campaign. But in this deeply conservative society, how likely is it that other men will join him?

Even within the Taliban government, there are those who oppose the ban on girls’ education — but most have not gone public

In response to the decrees, Afghan women across the country have continued to come out onto the streets to demand their rights.

While the protests have been predominantly led by Afghan women, male students and professors over the past few weeks have also begun risking their lives by speaking out – either by refusing to sit their final exams or by resigning from their positions.

Prof Mashal says since the Taliban took over the country, he can’t understand their focus on restricting women.

“Leave these poor women alone. It’s enough. There are much bigger issues that need to be dealt with. There is no law and order in this country, it’s like being in a jungle.”

The former journalist, 45, says he keeps in regular contact with his female students who are heartbroken by these decisions and he worries about their mental health.

One of his students, Shabnam, who was studying economics – a degree the Taliban say is inappropriate for women – says she’ll never forget the day armed Taliban soldiers arrived at their school to tell them it would be the last day they could attend classes.

“We were so afraid and left our classrooms with heavy hearts not knowing when or if we’d ever return. I haven’t been able to sleep properly since. I have three sisters and many female cousins and they’re all in the same situation. We feel we are trapped inside a cage or prison. Afghanistan is no country for women.”

Another student, Shabana, who was in her first semester of journalism – another degree disapproved of by the Taliban – says she is struggling to cope with the transformation the past year and a half has brought to the lives of women and girls.

“My heart is shattered. I was hoping to be a newsreader, a good reporter some day but it feels like that dream is over. For as long as I remain in this country, I don’t think we will be going back to our universities.

“We changed the way we dressed. Classrooms were segregated. We did exactly as we were told. But it was still not enough. We feared they would do this to us and they did.

“Everything feels incredibly bleak for me and my sister now. We are stuck at home, night turns to day and it all feels dark and bleak.”

Despite Shabana’s anguish, she praised Prof Mashal for taking a stance. “It is a very lonely time for the women and girls of my country. There aren’t many men who have spoken out. We worry about his safety but we are also so grateful for his support.”

Source: BBC

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