KABUL: The Taliban ordered girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan to shut on Wednesday just hours after they reopened, sparking heartbreak and confusion over the policy reversal by the hardline regime.
The U-turn was announced after thousands of girls resumed lessons for the first time since August, when the Taliban seized control of the country and imposed harsh restrictions on women.
The education ministry offered no coherent explanation even as officials held a ceremony in the capital to mark the start of the academic year, saying it was a matter for the country’s leadership.
“In Afghanistan, especially in the villages, the mindsets are not ready,” spokesman Aziz Ahmad Rayan told reporters. “We have some cultural restrictions... but the main spokesmen of the Islamic Emirate will offer better clarifications.”
A Taliban source told AFP the decision came after a meeting late Tuesday by senior officials in the southern city of Kandahar, the movement’s de facto power centre and conservative spiritual heartland.
UN rights chief, Malala, US envoy disappointed by Taliban move
Wednesday’s date for girls to resume school had been announced weeks earlier by the ministry, with spokesman Rayan saying the Taliban had a “responsibility to provide education and other facilities to our students”.
They insisted that pupils aged 12 to 19 would be segregated — even though most Afghan schools are already same-sex — and operate according to Islamic principles.
Crestfallen girls at Zarghona High School in the capital, Kabul, tearfully packed up their belongings after teachers halted the lesson. “I see my students crying and reluctant to leave classes,” said Palwasha, a teacher at Omara Khan girls’ school in Kabul. “It is very painful to see them crying.”
The UN rights chief voiced deep disappointment over the decision. “I share the profound frustration and disappointment of Afghan high school girls and women, who after six months of anticipation were prevented from returning to school today,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement in Geneva.
“The de facto authorities’ failure to adhere to commitments to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade — in spite of repeated commitments towards girls’ education, including during my visit to Kabul two weeks ago — is deeply damaging for Afghanistan,” she said and warned that “the denial of education violates the human rights of women and girls.
US special envoy to Afghanistan Rina Amiri tweeted the move “weakens confidence in the Taliban commitments” and “further dashes the hopes of families for a better future for their daughters”.
Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who survived a Pakistani Taliban assassination attempt when she was 15-years-old and has long campaigned for girls’ education, also expressed dismay.
“They will keep finding excuses to stop girls from learning — because they are afraid of educated girls and empowered women,” she said on Twitter.
Afghan expert Andrew Watkins, of the US Institute of Peace, said the about-face reflected a rift in the Taliban leadership. “This last-minute change appears to be driven by ideological differences in the movement... about how girls returning to school will be perceived by their followers,” he said.
Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2022