By Krista Mahr and Aimal Yaqubi
KABUL, Oct 23 (Reuters) - A group of Afghan students gathered on the leafy campus of Kabul University this week to embark on an unlikely course - the country's first Master's degree in gender and women's studies.
Advances made for women since U.S.-led troops ousted the Islamist Taliban in 2001 are held up as one of the wins of the war, but women are still regularly sidelined from political life and subject to violence in public and at home.
Many worry that things could get worse as security deteriorates around the country, a fear buttressed by reports of abuse against women in Kunduz after the Taliban briefly took control of the northern city last month.
"There's been a lot of change for women, but it's not enough," said Zheela Rafhat, a high school teacher and one of 28 students enrolled on the two-year course, which will tackle subjects like gender and violence. "It's better in the capital than in rural areas where there's been a lot of fighting."
Photographs of Kabul from the 1960s and 70s show a city where Afghan women strolled the streets in miniskirts and heels, a scene that had disappeared by the time the Taliban came to power in 1996.
Under the hardline group's interpretation of Islam, women and girls were banned from public life, including going to school and working, and had to wear a full-body burqa when venturing outside.
Millions of girls have gone back to school in the last 14 years, but access to higher education has been limited.
Teaching women's studies at graduate level should help spread awareness and send people into the workforce who can promote equality, the faculty and students said. Eighteen women and ten men have enrolled in the programme.
But the project is not without critics, some of whom think the course amounts to little more than another misguided foreign intervention. The course is funded by South Korea and run by the U.N. Development Programme in coordination with the government.
"Some people don't take it seriously," said Nargis Nazer Hossain, a 21-year-old student from Kabul. "They think it's in the interest of foreigners."
Other objections run deeper.
"THERE IS NO GENDER EQUALITY"
When the course was presented to the Ministry of Higher Education, it took two months to be approved, said Ghulam Farooq Abdullah, dean of the university's Faculty of Social Sciences.
Abdul Bari Hamidi, an Islamic studies professor and a member of the ministerial committee that approves new graduate programmes, said he objected to the course because it promoted gender equality.
"There is no gender equality in Islam," Hamidi said. "In family affairs, the head of the family must be a man, and being an Imam (Islamic spiritual leader) is limited to men."
Lecturers said the course work would address the topic, keeping Afghanistan's cultural context in mind.
"This is teaching by Afghan colleagues, Afghan professors, according with our reality and our society," said Nasrullah Stanekzai, a law professor who taught the first day of class on Monday.
Nevertheless, Kabul University is a somewhat unlikely host, having been the stage for heated protests against women's rights. In 2013, hundreds of students marched against the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, objecting to its secular foundations.
"There are students at Kabul University with radical ideas, but it's not rampant," said Ahmad Zia Rafhat, a journalism lecturer. "Some of the students come to the university from provinces where the Taliban have a bigger influence."
None of the students to whom Reuters spoke expressed any apprehension about taking the course. Nor did a small group of students hanging around the classroom offer any objections.
"I think it's a good thing," said Mushtaba Danish, a third-year undergraduate. "Men need the expertise for the future." (Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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