By Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield
KABUL (Reuters) - Female university students in Afghanistan were turned away from campuses on Wednesday after the Taliban-run administration said women would be suspended from tertiary education.
The decision to bar women was announced on Tuesday evening in a letter to universities from the higher education ministry, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and the United Nations.
"We went to university, the Taliban were at the gate and told us 'you are not allowed to enter the university until further notice' ... everyone was crying," said Shaista, a business studies student at a private university in Kabul.
Students and Reuters witnesses said that the presence of security forces outside universities was higher than usual and female students were told to leave by armed Taliban forces, even if they were going to complete administrative tasks.
The bar on women students is likely to complicate the Taliban administration's efforts to gain international recognition and to get rid of sanctions that are severely hampering the economy.
The U.N.'s mission in Afghanistan asked the Taliban-run administration to "immediately" revoke the decision.
It also urged the authorities to reopen girls' schools beyond the sixth grade and "end all measures preventing women and girls from participating fully in daily public life".
Hasti, a third-year political studies student, was preparing for her final exam scheduled for Wednesday when she heard the news, and spent the evening crying in front of her study materials instead.
"I have done my best to study, it is very hard for me, because right now I have to stop my studying and my goals are not achievable…. if the situation continues like this for women, it means women and girls are being buried alive," she said.
MORE SANCTIONS POSSIBLE
A student at Kabul University said she initially managed to convince guards to allow her inside to collect her diploma as she had finished her final exams and qualified for her degree. But while inside security forces entered and told all women to leave, including those in the middle of exams, meaning she left empty handed.
At Nangahar University, in eastern Afghanistan, male medical students sitting an exam walked out in solidarity with their female classmates, shown in videos posted on social media and confirmed to Reuters by one of the male students. Several male professors at tertiary institutes around the country said on local television and Twitter that they were resigning.
According to the late Tuesday announcement, the decision was made by the Taliban administration's cabinet.
Several Taliban officials, including the deputy foreign minister and administration spokesperson, have spoken out in favour of female education in recent months.
The Taliban's supreme spiritual leader, based in the southern city of Kandahar, has the final say on major decisions.
Diplomatic and Taliban official sources have told Reuters the issue had been under discussion by the leadership.
"This decision had been anticipated for weeks, prompting some Western officials to start talking about additional sanctions and further economic restrictions," said Graeme Smith, senior consultant at International Crisis Group.
"But the flood of outrage from the West will strengthen the resolve of the Taliban leadership, which defines itself as a bulwark against the outside world."
Taliban leadership have said they want peaceful relations with the international community but that foreigners should not interfere in domestic affairs.
Most girls are unable to go to school beyond primary classes. The Taliban administration has said it was working on a plan for girls' secondary education but has not given a time frame.
The administration made a surprise U-Turn on signals it would open all high-schools for girls in March.
(Reporting by Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel, Toby Chopra and Alex Richardson)