On a Tuesday in June, around 150 women were waiting in the theatre hall of Kabul University. It was Mother’s Day in Afghanistan and a group of women students were ready to perform for the first time since the Taliban took over last summer.
After two months of rehearsal, they were just about to go on stage when a university official cancelled the performance.
“The Taliban have said that women should not play the role of men,” Tahmina*, who was supposed to play the role of a man, recounts the explanation from the official.
The new rule came after classes were gender-segregated and male and female students banned from co-performances.
Tahmina and her friends begged the official to allow them one last performance but he refused and threatened to expel them if they kept insisting. That afternoon, Tahmina and her friends cried their eyes out in the darkness of the make-up room.
Her last performance was before the Taliban’s return to power; she played a man in front of an audience of about 100 men and women. Now, she is heartbroken.
“Think about it, you are an art student who has studied for four years but you cannot perform on stage! Your parents hope that you will graduate from university and do something, but when you come home, your head is down and you can’t do anything. This feeling is indescribable,” she told Zan Times in a phone interview.
Tahmina’s story is not the only tragedy unfolding in Kabul University’s faculty of fine arts. Zohra*, a painting student, describes the faculty as “paralyzed.” “The music department is closed. Students in the painting department are only allowed to draw nature. Students in the sculpture department are not allowed to make statues and students in the theatre department are not allowed to perform on stage — they can only read it in theory,” Zohra said.
In September 2021, the first Talibanappointed chancellor of Kabul University told India Today of their plan to Islamize the curriculum. “Whatever is forbidden in Islam, will not be allowed on the campus,” he said, adding that music would be forbidden.
Now, the music department is closed and its few remaining students are forced to continue their education in the department of cinema and drama literature.
Mohammad*, a fourth-year student, says that the Taliban did not even tolerate the name of the sculpture department and changed it to “department of decorative arts.” In the new department, students are not allowed to make sculptures of living beings.
“They say you are not allowed to make statues of humans and animals, not even a bird’s beak,” he told Zan Times, adding that university officials told them creating human and animal statues is “blasphemy.”
In 2001, Mullah Omar, the late Taliban leader, issued a decree declaring all statues “idols” and ordering their destruction. In March of that year, the Taliban destroyed two massive sixth-century Buddha statues in Bamyan province. The campaign of destruction continued for months across the country and an estimated 6,000 Buddhist antiques, statues, paintings, and other artefacts were destroyed.
In March 2022, the Taliban destroyed a student’s work of art, a statue of a woman in front of the fine arts faculty.
The new rule banning the depiction of living things was implemented not only in university campuses but across the country. In December 2021, the Taliban ordered shopkeepers in several parts of the country to cut off the heads of mannequins and not put up billboards with pictures of humans or animals. From their early days back in power, the Taliban started a “concerted campaign to remove artworks from all aspects of life,” the New York Times reported.
The Taliban’s restrictions on universities have created a shortage of professors.
A professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that out of 54 professors who taught in the faculty’s eight departments, only 14 still work.
Restrictions in the university
Being forbidden to perform on stage, however, is not the only problem Tahmina faces in the university. In May 2022, the Taliban ordered all women to cover their faces in public. Now, Tahmina and her friends must cover themselves from head to toe when entering the university.
“We are forced to wear long black clothes in this heat. The Taliban are walking around the university and won’t even allow us to take pictures,” she said.
Zohra, the painting student, says they are under surveillance even in their gender-segregated class. “When using colour, we have to roll up our sleeves a little so that they don’t get coloured,” she explains. Somehow the Taliban learned of this, though there were only girls in the class. “The Taliban held a meeting in the department and warned us not to roll up our sleeves,” she says.
All the students who spoke in this report said students are living in fear with constant threats. They say it is difficult to speak because they are being threatened with the closure of the faculty.
Until last summer, the faculty of fine arts was the center of exhibitions and festivities at Kabul University, radiating and encouraging artistic creativity.
These days, Tahmina, like most of her classmates, is thinking about leaving Afghanistan and going to a place where she can perform on stage.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.