The Taliban are facing international condemnation after they announced on Wednesday that girls would not be allowed to attend secondary school, despite their previous assurances.
“The denial of education violates the human rights of women and girls,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights high commissioner. “Beyond their equal right to education, it leaves them more exposed to violence, poverty and exploitation.”
Samira Hamidi, an Amnesty International campaigner in Afghanistan, said: “This is a worst nightmare come true for the women and girls of Afghanistan, who have had their future and all they had hoped and worked for ripped away from them over the last year.” Hamidi said the Taliban had “betrayed” the country by “depriving a generation of women and girls of their right to education”.
Bachelet said the decision was “of grave concern at a time when the country desperately needs to overcome multiple intersecting crises. Disempowering half of Afghanistan’s population is counterproductive and unjust”.
The surprise announcement came late on Tuesday night. Many teachers and pupils found out only on Wednesday morning, the first day of the school year in Afghanistan, as girls prepared to return to class after a six-month break caused by the turmoil in the country.
“Lots of excited girls were already waiting outside the school. They were here hours before their classes started. They were very happy and excited. Then we told them about the new order,” a schoolteacher in Kabul said. “Many of them started arguing. I had nothing to tell them. I left an hour ago. I cried.” By the end of the school day, the teacher said, some of the girls were still standing outside the building, unable to “to move their legs to go back home”.
Girls have been banned from education beyond middle school in most of the country since the Taliban returned to power in mid-August 2021. Most universities opened up earlier this year but Taliban edicts on education have been erratic and, while a handful of provinces continued to provide education to all, most closed institutions for girls and women.
In the capital, Kabul, private schools and universities have operated uninterrupted, and the Taliban had said girls would eventually be able to return to school. A statement by Afghanistan’s education ministry earlier in the week urged “all students” to come to school.
The U-turn is seen as a concession to the rural and deeply tribal backbone of the hardline Taliban that, in many parts of the countryside, are reluctant to send their daughters to school.
“The leadership hasn’t decided when or how they will allow girls to return to school,” said Waheedullah Hashmi, external relations and donor representative with the Taliban-led administration. While he accepted that urban centres are mostly supportive of girls’ education, he said much of rural Afghanistan was opposed to it, particularly tribal Pashtun regions.
“In some rural areas a brother will disown a brother in the city if he finds out that he is letting his daughters go to school,” said Hashmi, adding that the Taliban leadership was trying to decide how to open education for girls older than 11 countrywide.
The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Tom West, said in a tweet: “For the sake of the country’s future and its relations with the international community, I would urge the Taliban to live up to their commitments to their people.”
Meanwhile Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the NRC remained hopeful that the education ministry’s announcement would be reversed.
Bérénice Van Den Driessche, a Kabul-based campaigner for the organisation, said: “We will continue the dialogue with the ministry of education to understand where are the blockages and see if we can provide support in order to unlock those blockages.” She said she could see the authorities reversing their stance if conditions regarding gender mixing were met. “We are definitely hopeful and very much expecting a return to the previous position and the previous commitment to allow girls to go back,” she said.
But girls and young women feel uncertain about their future. “We did everything the Taliban asked in terms of Islamic dress and they promised that girls could go to school and now they have broken their promise,” said Mariam Naheebi, a journalist, who spoke to the Associated Press in the Afghan capital. Naheebi has protested for women’s rights and said: “They have not been honest with us.”
Afghan television stations broadcast interviews with crying girls, as they found out that they would not be allowed to attend class.
“I was awake until two o’clock last night preparing for this morning and it was very hard for me to wake up very early to come here to school,” one girl said. “When I arrived, I was so happy but my teacher was crying and I did not know why. When she told us the news, everyone started crying.”
Another said: “We are human. We have rights. Why are they playing with our future. We only want to continue our studies. Is it a crime to be a girl? Is it a crime we want to study?”