Afghan women have found a strong supporter as they protest against the Taliban banning women from universities -- men.
Hundreds of male professors and students, as well as husbands and fathers, are publicly airing their opposition to the latest restriction imposed by the Taliban against their "sisters."
While women are leading the charge and taking the brunt of the ensuing crackdown as they demonstrate for their rights, men have protested the Taliban's December 20 decision to ban women from state and private universities with walkouts, resignations, and street demonstrations.
Such open support from men is unusual in Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal and conservative society, and speaks volumes about public discontent as the Taliban gradually restores the most draconian aspects of its brutal rule in the 1990s.
The protests by both women and men began immediately after the Taliban announced the university ban, the latest restriction it has imposed against women since it seized power in August 2021. Just days later, the militant group banned Afghan women from working for NGOs operating in Afghanistan.
In Nangarhar, male students at a medical school in the eastern province walked out of their classes en masse on December 21 and said they would refuse to take exams until women's access to their university was reinstated.
There were similar walkouts of male students at the Afghan Pamir Higher Education Institute in the capital, Kabul.
In southern Kandahar Province, around 600 male students at Mirwais Neka University walked out of their classes to protest the ban.
In the provincial capital, also called Kandahar, male students who walked out of their university classes were reportedly beaten by Taliban fighters, as evidenced by videos sent to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.
"Teach everyone or no one," a protest slogan born in Nangarhar, quickly spread to provinces around the country, including Herat, Logar, and Takhar.
Ahmad Ehsan Sangar, the president and founder of the Afghan Social Organization activist group, was a participant in street protests in eastern Logar Province this week that were violently dispersed.
"We raised our voices at night with many slogans and were attacked by the Taliban," Sangar told Radio Azadi. "Our location was identified, and the Taliban searched for us. As a leader, I will stand by my fighting sisters. We want a free country, and we want a country where women and men have equal rights."
Another male resident of Logar Province, who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said he joined residents who were driven from the streets but then took to their rooftops to shout their support for the education of girls and women in Afghanistan.
"We hate illiteracy and misery. We want to be literate and our generation to be literate," he said. "The Taliban came and fired at us, and finally we went up to our roofs and chanted."
Prominent male personalities have also publicly supported women and their right to pursue a university education.
Among them are several cricket players, who have used the popularity of their sport in Afghanistan as a platform to express solidarity with female students.
And on live national television, Ismail Mashal, a university professor from Kabul, ripped up his academic degrees while appearing on the private TOLOnews channel.
"I don't need these diplomas anymore because my country is no place for education," Mashal declared. "If my sister and my mother cannot study, then I don't accept this education."
Dozens of other male academics have also reportedly resigned from Afghan universities, where women had previously been allowed to study by the Taliban, although while segregated from male teachers and students.
Women have continued to lead the way on the streets and in chants of "Allahu Akbar" and "education is our right" that have broken the nighttime silence in Kabul and other cities.
One woman in southeastern Ghazni Province, who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity, said she joined the chants of "teach everyone or no one" in the hope that the message will be taken seriously by the Taliban and the world as a whole.
"We hope that this growing demonstration will continue to expand so that our voices can be heard," she said.
Afghan women and girls have suffered significant losses of personal liberties since the Taliban returned to power. Despite the hard-line Islamist group's pledge to respect women's rights, girls were almost immediately barred from attending school past the sixth grade.
In the Taliban's first year of power, women were ordered to wear the all-encompassing burqa, and in recent months women have been banned from entering public places such as parks, bathhouses, and gyms.
Receiving word that they would no longer be able to attend university left many female students in tears.
And those who took to the streets were shown no mercy by the authorities, with the Taliban violently breaking up even small demonstrations in cities around the country.
In the western city of Herat, water cannons were used to hammer home the point that no dissent by women would be tolerated.
University education as a whole was already suffering from a brain drain since the Taliban's return to power. At Herat University alone, some 70 percent of the institution's lecturers dissatisfied about teaching restrictions, the diminished quality of education, and the halving of their salaries are believed to have left, often for abroad.
The ban on women's university education has only added to the international outcry about the Taliban's treatment of women and girls.
But amid the controversy, the Taliban has doubled down.
Nida Mohammad Nadim, the Taliban's minister of higher education who signed off on the ban on women's education, this week said that the militants were not interested in the "progress and civilization" of the Afghan people and that nothing -- not even a nuclear strike -- would make them change course. (SJ/RFE)