Dozens of Afghan women granted scholarships to study in the United Arab Emirates have been blocked from leaving Afghanistan, one of the women told AFP on Thursday, following outcry from their Emirati sponsor.
Laila, 22, was one of around 30 women who had been sponsored to study in the UAE by prominent Emirati businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, but were stopped from departing on their flights from Kabul airport on Wednesday.
Women and girls were banned from attending high school and university in Afghanistan after Taliban authorities took control of the country in August 2021.
"It was our only hope to go abroad to continue our education," said Laila, whose name has been changed for fear of reprisals.
"This was an amazing opportunity for us but, like everything else, this opportunity was taken from us."
She was due to start a law degree in Dubai, having been forced to abandon her journalism studies under the Taliban government ban.
Laila said she and the other women made it to their departure gate but were turned away at the last moment by men in airport uniforms who said they had an order that those with student visas were not allowed to leave the country.
Taliban officials did not respond to AFP requests for comment or confirmation.
Al Habtoor, the founding chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, slammed the Afghan authorities on Wednesday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, and urged them to let the women leave.
He said about 100 women had been granted scholarships in collaboration with the University of Dubai and that Al Habtoor Group staff had worked for months to ensure everything was in place for them.
"The authorities in Afghanistan, without justification, prevented their departure, unjustly curtailing their freedom... I request all involved parties to quickly step in and help rescue and assist these struggling students," Al Habtoor said in the post.
"They have the right to study, they have the right to do whatever the men can do and there is no exception to that," he said in an accompanying video.
- 'Alarming' -
The video included what it said was a voice note from another of the women at the airport: "When they see the student visa and the student ticket they don't allow us (to board). I don't know what to do. Please help us."
Heather Barr, associate women's rights director at Human Rights Watch, said the incident marked "an alarming step".
"This is holding them prisoner to prevent others from helping them study," Barr said.
Taliban authorities have imposed their strict interpretation of Islam in the two years since their takeover, with women bearing the brunt of laws the United Nations has called "gender apartheid".
The Taliban government has also barred women from visiting parks, fairs and gyms, and has ordered them to cover up in public. Women are mostly blocked from working for UN agencies or NGOs, with thousands sacked from government jobs or paid to stay at home.
Laila said she still hoped they would be allowed to leave for Dubai and urged the international community to support them.
"It is very difficult to imagine my future without proper education," she said.