Zahra Khawari, a young student at Kabul University, committed suicide after her thesis was rejected repeatedly by a professor at the veterinary department. According to Etilaat e Roz Newspaper, Zahra, who came from an impoverished family in Daikundi Province, was instructed to write her thesis on a topic related to nourishment of sheep. Using her own humble means, she visited her rural province and conducted her study but upon returning to the university her advisor rejected it for various reasons. Zahra used the little money she had to grow poultry inside a large metal container inside the university to repeat her research. Once again, her results and her thesis were rejected. The pressure was too much to bare for Zahra and she poisoned herself in her dorm room. According to her roommate, Zahra suffered in pain for hours, but the university authorities would not take her to the hospital, first because they didn’t believe she was in pain and later because they couldn’t find her student identification card. By the time she was finally sent to the hospital, Zahra’s health had deteriorated and she passed away the next day.
To discuss the issue, we reached out to several university students. Many said that this is the life of many female students in governmental dormitories in Kabul University. They are treated like prisoners with a curfew of 5:00pm. They are not allowed visitors outside of family members.Their attire is scrutinized by dormitory authorities and they are routinely harassed and humiliated for the smallest transgression. They are not treated when they are ill and their psychological needs are ignored. There is no on-call therapist for students suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders, despite the prevalence of these disorders in war-torn Afghanistan.
Women and ethnic minorities continue to face constant discrimination from other students as well as the administration. In 2013, hundreds of students participated in a peaceful protest and hunger strike against nepotism, discrimination and physical and sexual harassment. Although the protest ended with the administration making a commitment to work towards addressing the students’ concerns, not much has changed at the university and every year there are reports of continued sexual harassment and corruption.
One student wrote Free Women Writers that many wealthy or well-connected students don’t show up for exams but they pass classes every year, on the other hand university professors demand sexual favors from women in exchange for passing grades.
“The poor are the only ones who have to follow university regulations,” she wrote.
Many students wrote about how unnecessarily strict some university professors are during class. Many prohibit students from disagreeing with them, penalize them harshly for even excusable absence from class, and publicly shame them for making mistakes in exams or assignments. Instead of creating a space for exploration and critical thinking, professors rule their classrooms with an iron fist using every opportunity to exercise their power.
“We can’t even voice our opinions or ask a question without fear,” another student claimed.
Today, university students marched to demand justice for Zahra. They called for the resignation of her advisor and the dormitory officials who prevented her from accessing health services and for a safer, more equal, educational space for women and ethnic minorities. What remains to be seen is whether Zahra’s death will lead the authorities to taking tangible steps to end the discriminatory and unfair treatment of students at the university.
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