(CNN) — Young Afghan women gathered outside Kabul University on Monday to protest the ruling Taliban's ban on female education as their male peers returned to school for a new academic year and the United Nations heard the restriction may amount to a crime against humanity.
A video shared widely on social media shows a group of girls sitting on the ground outside Kabul University reading their books. CNN has not independently verified when the video was filmed.
The Taliban banned women from attending university last December, nine months after the Islamist group barred girls from returning to secondary schools amid a brutal crackdown on women's rights since it seized power in 2021.
On Monday, a Taliban spokesperson for the Ministry of Higher Education announced the start of classes in several provinces, claiming "all teachers and students attended their lessons in a safe and calm atmosphere."
Photos from universities in Kabul show classrooms full of male students and teachers; images of female students on a banner at one private university had been struck out with spray paint.
"We are happy that the university has started; But I am sad that our sisters cannot attend universities," a male student named Nasir told independent Afghan outlet TOLO News on Monday.
The Taliban has previously said the university ban was due to women not observing Islamic dress rules and other "Islamic values," citing female students traveling without a male guardian. Interaction between female and male students was "not allowed in Sharia law," it said.
The ban has sparked an outcry, with girls expressing devastation and the sense they had been robbed of their future.
UN report on human rights crisis
On Monday, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, presented a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that said the Taliban's ban on female education "may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity."
The report listed various other compounding crises, such as the rise in forced and child marriages, sexual abuse and assault, the ban on women from other public spaces like parks and gyms, and other restrictions limiting women's ability to work and travel independently.
These bans "deepen existing flagrant violations of women's human rights, already among the most draconian in the world," the report said.
The Taliban's return to power preceded a deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, worsening issues that had long plagued the country. After the takeover, the US and its allies froze about $7 billion of the country's foreign reserves and cut off international funding — crippling an economy heavily dependent on overseas aid.
Already scarce humanitarian aid diminished further in December when the Taliban announced a ban on female NGO workers -- prompting multiple major foreign aid groups to suspend their operations in the country.
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