When a 27-year-old woman known as Farkhunda was violently beaten and killed in the heart of Kabul by a mob accusing her of burning the Koran in March this year, the world was shocked and so were many Afghans.

Advances made for women since US-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. Farkhunda's death and recent attacks on school girls by the Taliban, who claimed to have unleashed poisonous gas in their classroom, highlight the fact that there is still a long way to go.

On 19 October, a course at Kabul University started, with hopes that thought, insight and awareness on women from an academic point of view would help empower Afghan women and also spread awareness of women's rights, which could in the future promote equality in society as well as the workplace.

"This gender program is really needed in Afghanistan because many women do not know about their rights, so through this program we can make women aware of their rights, which enables them to work and study in this society, and we also want to tell women that you are not only made for housework," said Zheela Rafhat, a 40-year-old high school teacher who is one of 28 students enrolled in the two-year course.

"There have been a lot of changes for women in the capital compared to rural areas because the security situation is not good in rural areas and women have problems going out to work," she added.

The 18 female and 10 male students will study gender issues as well as issues related to gender violence in the programme funded by South Korea and run by the UN Development Programme in coordination with the government.

The project is not without critics who argued the course just delves in foreign notions of gender. When the course was presented to the Ministry of Higher Education, it took two months to be approved. However, professors involved in the course said the studies were essential and were relevant as they would take into account the Afghan social context.

"I think the very good point in this program, it's teaching by the Afghan colleagues, Afghan professors and according with our reality, according with our society it's very important," said Nasrullah Stanikzai, a law professor who taught on the first day of the course.

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.

Under the Taliban's interpretation of Islam who came to power in 1996, 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 since the fall of the Taliban, but access to higher education has been limited.