“You all are informed to immediately implement the mentioned order of suspending education of females until further notice,” said a letter issued to all government and private universities, signed by the Minister for Higher Education, Neda Mohammad Nadeem.
“The Taliban should expect that this decision, which is in contravention to the commitments they have made repeatedly and publicly to their own people, will carry concrete costs for them,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
The ban on higher education comes less than three months after thousands of girls and women sat university entrance exams across the country, with many aspiring to choose teaching and medicine as future careers.
The universities are currently on winter break and due to reopen in March.
After the takeover of the country by the Taliban, universities were forced to implement new rules including gender segregated classrooms and entrances, while women were only permitted to be taught by women professors or old men.
The country was returning to “dark days”, added medicine student Rhea in the capital, who asked that her name be changed.
“When we were hoping to make progress, they are removing us from the society,” the 26-year-old said.
– ‘A fundamental human right’ –
The United Nations is “deeply concerned” by the order, said Ramiz Alakbarov, UN chief’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan.
“Education is a fundamental human right. A door closed to women’s education is a door closed to the future of Afghanistan,” he tweeted.
The Taliban adheres to an austere version of Islam, with the movement’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his inner circle of Afghan clerics against modern education, especially for girls and women.
But they are at odds with many officials in Kabul and among their rank and file who had hoped girls would be allowed to continue learning following the takeover.
“There are serious differences in the Taliban ranks on girls’ education and the latest decision will increase these differences,” a Taliban commander based in northwest Pakistan told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In a cruel U-turn, the Taliban in March blocked girls from returning to secondary schools on the morning they were supposed to reopen.
Several Taliban officials say the secondary education ban is only temporary, but they have also wheeled out a litany of excuses for the closure – from a lack of funds to time needed to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines.
Since the ban, many teenage girls have been married off early – often to much older men of their father’s choice.
Several families interviewed by AFP last month said that coupled with economic pressure the school ban meant that securing their daughters’ future through marriage was better than them sitting idle at home.
– International pressure –
Women have also been pushed out of many government jobs – or are being paid a slashed salary to stay at home. They are also barred from travelling without a male relative, and must cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa.
In November they were also prohibited from going to parks, funfairs, gyms and public baths.
The international community has made the right to education for all women a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the Taliban regime.
“The international community has not and will not forget Afghan women and girls,” the UN Security Council said in a statement in September.
In the 20 years between the Taliban’s two reigns, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though the country remained socially conservative.
The authorities have also returned to public floggings and executions of men and women in recent weeks as they implement an extreme interpretation of Islamic sharia law.
An economic crisis in Afghanistan has only worsened since the Taliban returned to power following the hasty withdrawal of US-led foreign forces last August.
Washington froze $7 billion of Afghanistan’s assets held in the United States while billions in foreign aid that helped prop up the country has vastly reduced.