For nearly two decades, foreign scholarships provided a golden opportunity for many Afghans to acquire knowledge, new skills, and degrees that few universities in Afghanistan offered.
Women particularly benefited from such international education, which allowed them to establish or enhance their careers. The foreign experience also propelled many to leadership roles in government and civil society.
But Afghan women are now being deprived of studying abroad because the Taliban is not allowing women to travel outside Afghanistan without a male chaperone.
The restriction follows a Taliban ban on education for teenage girls, which has kept millions of secondary-school students from the classroom since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August.
“I had a hellish experience because of this restriction,” says Hadia Tuba, who recently went to Pakistan to begin her university education on a scholarship from Islamabad.
The young Kabul resident says the day she crossed the Torkham border crossing connecting eastern Afghanistan to northwestern Pakistan was the hardest in her life.
“The Taliban stopped me at the border and questioned me for the entire day,” she told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “Eventually, I was let go after a stern warning [that I should never travel alone].”
Afghan students attend their graduation ceremony at Bakhtar University in Kabul in December. Some 200 Afghan students, 60 of which were women, graduated.
Tuba says the intimidation she felt was difficult to describe.
“I will never forget what happened, but I don’t like to talk about it,” she said.
The restriction has forced entire Afghan families to leave the country.
Sonia Ahmadi was forced to bring her parents and siblings with her when she went to the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad to attend Ferdowsi University.
“It is a major problem that no woman is allowed to travel alone, whether by road or by air,” she told Radio Azadi. “The gender discrimination against women is pushing Afghanistan backward.”
Officials at the Taliban’s Higher Education Ministry and the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Ministry did not respond to Radio Azadi’s repeated requests for comment.
LISTEN: Monawara Quraishi is an Afghan teenager. She is upset that she cannot complete her high school courses due to the Taliban’s restrictions on schooling for girls. “Since the schools were closed, I have been crying,” the 19-year-old has told Radio Azadi, which has become a rare arena for dissenting voices after the Taliban seized power.
The Taliban announced in February that women could not travel abroad without a valid legal reason. It also put a complete ban on women traveling alone when they go abroad.
Sources have told Radio Azadi that the Taliban has deployed officials at border crossings and airports to prevent women who are traveling solo from leaving Afghanistan.
The moves are part of a broader Taliban push for Islamization that has kept many women from getting an education, working, or having a visible role in society.
Since marching triumphantly into Kabul nearly 11 months ago, the Taliban has reversed nearly every advance Afghan women made since the collapse of the first Taliban regime in late 2001.
The hard-line Islamists have also detained, harassed, and beaten women protesting for their civil rights.
WATCH: A few dozen women braved threats by the Taliban and took to the streets of Kabul in May to voice their discontent over a requirement to cover their faces in public. The order came on May 7 and calls for women to wear head-to-toe coverings and only show their eyes.
In the past two decades, scholarships from universities in the West helped many Afghan women overcome adversity in their lives. Recipients of U.S. Fulbright and British Chevening scholarships, in particular, rose through the ranks of the Afghan government and became prominent civil society leaders.
Thousands of others studied at other Western institutions and universities in neighboring countries. India was generous in accommodating thousands of Afghans in its vast network of educational institutions.
But most of the Western scholarship programs were suspended after the Taliban took power, leaving Afghan women to apply for only a handful of scholarships, mainly in nearby South Asian countries.
The latest order forcing women to be chaperoned has made it difficult for most and impossible for others to even take advantage of these diminished opportunities.
Naheed, a pseudonym for a resident of the western province of Herat, was recently awarded a scholarship for a master’s degree in India. Obtaining an Afghan passport was just the first hurdle she faced after completing the paperwork for her scholarship.
Accusations of corruption have bogged the Afghan passport office under the Taliban. And passport offices have been crowded, since many Afghans want to flee their country’s failing economy and the Taliban’s harsh rule.
The closure of most diplomatic missions and the suspension of visa services inside Afghanistan made it challenging to organize a trip abroad.
Naheed was able to overcome all these challenges but is now very nervous about trying to travel to India alone.
“The current government has deprived women of the right to travel independently,” she said.
Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.