“After the Taliban shut universities for women, my only hope was to get a scholarship which would help me study abroad,” says 20-year-old Afghan student Natkai.
Natkai’s name has been changed for her own safety.
The Taliban have cracked down hard on women who oppose them.
Natkai says she kept studying even though there was little chance of her ever attending university in her homeland.
Then she was granted a scholarship to study at the University of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from Emirati billionaire businessman Sheikh Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor.
The scholarships for Afghan women were announced in December 2022 after the Taliban banned women from university.
The BBC understands a total of 100 Afghan women have been successful in gaining these scholarships. Some Afghan students living abroad have already travelled to Dubai.
On Wednesday 23 August, Natkai said goodbye to her family and set off for the airport.
But her hopes were soon dashed.
“When the Taliban officials saw our tickets and student visas, they said girls are not allowed to leave Afghanistan on student visas,” she tells me, her voice breaking.
Stopped from travelling
Natkai is one of at least 60 girls who were turned away from the airport.
Photos seen by the BBC show young girls wearing black hijabs or headscarves standing next to their luggage in a state of shock and devastation.
The Taliban has banned solo travel for women and only allow them to go abroad with their husbands or a related male companion such as a brother, uncle or father, known as a mahram, a male escort.
But even this was not enough.
“Three girls who had a mahram were inside the plane,” says Natkai. “But officials from the Vice and Virtue ministry took them off the plane.”
The rest of the students were too frightened to talk to the media.
A young man we’re calling Shams Ahmad, accompanied his sister to the airport and described the distress.
“The scholarship gave new hope to my sister after the universities were closed here. She left home with hope and returned in tears,” he says. “All her rights have been taken away.”
Mr Ahmad says some of the women even borrowed money to pay for a visa for a male companion to accompany them but were still stopped.
“Some of these girls are so helpless and poor. They don’t even have 400 Afghanis (£4; $5) for the document verification fee requested by the foreign affairs ministry.”
The University of Dubai and Mr Al Habtoor have confirmed the girls were stopped.
Mr Al Habtoor posted a video message in English on X, formerly known as Twitter. In it, he criticises the Taliban authorities, saying men and women are equal under Islam.
The video also contains a voice note in English from an Afghan girl who was stopped at the airport.
“We are right now in the airport but unfortunately, the government is not allowing us to go to Dubai,” she says. “Even they don’t allow those who have a mahram. I don’t know what to do. Please help us.”
This latest Taliban action has created dismay among rights groups and diplomats.
“This is an important and alarming step beyond the extraordinary level of cruelty the Taliban already engage in by denying girls and women education,” says Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch.
“This is holding them prisoner to prevent others from helping them study.”
The former United Nations youth representative from Afghanistan, Shkula Zadran, has posted a message urging the university not to give up on the girls.
The Taliban have not issued any statement or clarification.
A spokesperson for the Vice and Virtue ministry, Mohammad Sadiq Akif Muhajir, told the BBC they were not aware of the incident.
A senior Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, also declined to comment, saying he was travelling and did not have any information.
Natkai is in a state of despondency.
She had graduated from high school and was preparing for the university entrance exam just as the Taliban took power on 15 August 2021.
Natkai thought she had found a way to follow her dreams. She says she has nothing to say to the Taliban because “they don’t accept or respect women”.
She calls on the world not to abandon Afghan girls or their education.
“I missed this opportunity in a country where it is a crime to be a girl. I’m very sad and I don’t know what to do or what will happen to me next.”
News by Noor Gul Shafaq, BBC Afghanistan
BBC, 28 August 2023, Direct Link: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-66461711