By Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) – Raihana, 19, wanted to be a doctor, studying until midnight in recent weeks for the Afghan university entrance exam, a chance for women to advance their studies even as they face increasing restrictions from the Taliban government.

Her diligent preparation came to an end on Friday when a suicide bomber detonated her explosives during a practical exam in the girls’ section of a packed room at the Kaaj Education Institute, a private tutoring center in the capital Kabul.

Raihana’s father, a shopkeeper, rushed her to hospital but she did not survive.

“She always said, ‘If you have a chance, you shouldn’t miss it and you have to do your best. But she didn’t know she was going to be martyred,” said her aunt Khatera, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisals.

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Young women like Raihana, denied the chance to get a standard secondary education under the Islamist Taliban who took power a year ago, were among the many victims of the explosion at the private centre.

Residents of the neighborhood whose family members, friends and neighbors were killed, injured and emotionally shaken described to Reuters a violent setback for young women seeking an education against already difficult odds.

The blast hit the western Kabul area, which is home to many members, like Raihana, of the minority Hazara community of mostly Shia Muslims in predominantly Sunni Afghanistan. The Hazaras have been the target of past attacks by the ultra-radical Islamic State and others.

No one has claimed responsibility for Friday’s explosion.

With the closure of secondary schools for girls, “Our last hope was the educational institutions. Unfortunately, now the institutes are also under threat,” said Sakina Nazari, a 25-year-old resident and former student of Kaaj whose friend from the family was seriously injured in the attack.

Secondary schools for girls have been closed in most provinces, including Kabul, since the Taliban took power in August 2021. Leaders backtracked on promises to open all schools in March.

Private tutoring centers such as Kaaj have provided a lifeline for girls wishing to continue their education and a chance to go to university, where women are still allowed, although they face increased restrictions and growing economic challenges.

Male students were also taking Friday’s mock exam but, according to the Taliban source and a witness, the attacker went to the part of the class where the young women were seated separated from their male peers, which resulted in a large number of female victims.

“Young women from Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara community are believed to constitute (the) majority of the (more than) 60 people killed and injured,” the UN Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement. “Those responsible must face justice. The Taliban must fulfill their obligations to ensure the safety of all Afghans.”

The UN mission said at least 35 people were killed and 82 injured. Police confirmed 19 dead and 27 injured, but health workers and the Taliban source say the toll is higher and many injured were in serious condition.

Taliban officials condemned the attack, saying the group would find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

The Hazara community has been the target of a series of attacks, some of which have been claimed by the Islamic State, including under the Republic overthrown by the Taliban.

“It’s not the last and it’s not the first,” said Sakina Yousufi, a volunteer activist from the area. The families, many of them from modest backgrounds who gave everything to educate their children during the country’s economic crisis, wanted their daughters to be educated but were beginning to fear, she said.

“A lot of people are afraid to send their children, their daughters to a (private education) course or a university,” she said. “There is a big challenge to go to school…and now there are only more challenges.”

Raihana’s aunt said the family swore that all children, including Raihana’s sister, would study to avenge her death.

“They want to stop us from learning by such actions and killing, but they will never stop us,” she said.

(Reporting by Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by Syed Hassib; Editing by William Mallard)

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