On March 23, the Taliban reversed their pledge to allow girls to continue attending school after the sixth grade, the point at which “secondary” education starts in Afghanistan. Afghan girls heading to class that day were prevented from entering.
“Don’t come in here until we’ve got official permission. And when you come back, you have to wear a black face veil, a black chador and a black scarf,” one school’s principal told students, according to a report by National Public Radio (NPR).
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s ambassador-designate to the United Nations, told NPR.:
“There is no issue of banning girls from schools … It is only a technical issue of deciding on form of school uniform for girls. We hope the uniform issue is resolved and finalized as soon as possible.”
That statement is misleading.
The Taliban, who banned female education while ruling Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, has given no indication of when they might reopen secondary schools for girls.
This appears to be backpedaling.
Last August, during the militant group’s first news conference after returning to power, a spokesman promised the Taliban would allow women “to work and study” and “be very active in the society, but within the framework of Islam.”
Then, in January, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid further told The Associated Press that the group was hoping to reintroduce education for girls and women by late March.
He said that the government was concerned about the lack of proper infrastructure to completely segregate girls and boys, as densely populated areas require different school buildings to abide by the Taliban’s conservative interpretation of Islamic law.
Education for girls and women “is a question of capacity,” Mujahid said.
Then came March 23, start of the school year in Afghanistan.
During an opening day ceremony, Mawlawi Saeed Ahmad Shahidkhel, deputy minister of human resources and administration at the Ministry of Education, “called on citizens of the country to send their children to schools and adorn them with the ornaments of science and knowledge,” the Bakhtar News Agency reported.
In the same report, however, the Taliban-controlled news agency noted that while the Ministry of Education had submitted a plan to reopen all schools, “right now, under the guidance of the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, schools for women from the sixth grade above are closed until further notice.” (Meaning sixth grade is the highest grade girls can attend.)
The news agency quoted Mawlawi Aziz Ahmad Ryan, director of publications and spokesman for the Ministry of Education, who didn’t offer much of an explanation, if any.
“After compiling a comprehensive plan in this field in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture and traditions, as well as the ruling of the Islamic Emirate, female schools and high schools will be officially informed,” Ryan said.
The news sparked a demonstration near the Ministry of Education building Kabul, with protesters shouting, “Education is our right! Open the doors of girls’ schools!”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the decision.
“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 in a March 23 statement.
Bachelet added that denial of education “violates the human rights of women and girls – beyond their equal right to education, it leaves them more exposed to violence, poverty and exploitation.”
“Disempowering half of Afghanistan’s population is counterproductive and unjust,” Bachelet said.
The Guardian reported the more protests are planned, and that women also have been blocked from boarding international flights at the Kabul airport because they lacked a male guardian.
Human Rights Watch predicted there might be a problem reopening schools for girls. In a report this month, the group said:
“Taliban policies on education since August 2021 have been a collection of fragmented and sometimes incoherent policies. These have had the overall effect of depriving a large proportion of girls and women any access to education and, for many others, creating an environment in which even if they are allowed to study it has become impossible for them to do so.
“Female students have been allowed to attend primary school, mostly banned from attending secondary school, and partially permitted to attend higher education but under circumstances that pushed many out of studying.”