By Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield
KABUL (Reuters) -Raihana, 19, wanted to be a doctor, studying until midnight in recent weeks for Afghanistan's university entrance exam, a chance for women to advance their education even as they face growing restrictions from the Taliban government.
Her diligent preparation ended on Friday when a suicide attacker detonated his explosives during a practice exam in the girls' section of a packed room at Kaaj Education Institute, a private tutoring centre in the capital Kabul.
Raihana's father, a shopkeeper, rushed her to hospital but she did not survive.
"She was always saying, '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 retribution.
Young women like Raihana, denied opportunities for a standard secondary education under the Islamist Taliban who seized power a year ago, comprised many of the victims in the blast at the private centre.
Residents of the neighbourhood who had family members, friends and neighbours 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 West Kabul area, home to many, like Raihana, of the Hazara minority community of mostly Shi'ite Muslims in Sunni-majority Afghanistan. Hazaras have been targeted in past attacks launched by the ultra-radical Islamic State and others.
No one has claimed responsibility for Friday's blast.
With girls' secondary schools closed, "Our last hope was educational institutions. Unfortunately now the institutes are also under threat," said Sakina Nazari, a 25-year-old resident and former Kaaj student whose family friend was badly injured in the attack.
Girls' secondary schools have been closed in most provinces, including Kabul, since the Taliban took over in August 2021. The leadership backtracked on promises to open all schools in March.
Private tutoring centres such as Kaaj have provided a lifeline to girls wanting to further their education and a chance to go to universities, where women are still allowed, though they face increased restrictions and growing economic challenges.
Male students were also sitting Friday's mock exam but, according to the Taliban source and a witness, the attacker went to the part of the class where young women sat separated from their male peers, resulting in high female casualties.
"Young women from Afghanistan's Hazara Shia community reportedly make up (the) majority of (the) 60-plus killed and injured," the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan said in a statement. "Those responsible must face justice. Taliban must fulfil obligations to ensure safety of all Afghans."
The U.N. mission said at least 35 people had been killed and 82 injured. Police have confirmed 19 killed and 27 wounded, but health workers and the Taliban source say the toll is higher and that many of the 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 claimed by Islamic State, including under the Republic that the Taliban overthrew.
"This is not the last one and this is not the first one," said Sakina Yousufi, a volunteer education advocate from the area. Families, many from modest backgrounds who gave everything to educate their children during the country's economic crisis, wanted their daughters educated but were becoming scared, she said.
"Many people are afraid to send their children, their girls to go to a (private education) course or 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 had vowed that all the 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)