Taliban renege on promise to open Afghan girls’ schools
By Safiullah Padshah and Christina Goldbaum
The Taliban on Wednesday abruptly reversed their decision to allow girls’ high schools to reopen this week, saying that they would remain closed until officials draw up a plan for them to reopen in accordance with Islamic law.
The move is likely to deal a significant blow to the credibility the Taliban had been trying to build with international donors in recent months. And it could threaten the billions of dollars of humanitarian aid that have helped keep millions of Afghans from famine as the country grapples with a devastating economic collapse.
Since the Taliban seized power in August last year, most high school girls have been barred from attending classes across the country.
On Monday, the Ministry of Education had announced that all schools, including girls’ high schools, would reopen Wednesday at the start of the spring semester. The following day, a Ministry of Education spokesman released a video congratulating all students on their returning to class.
Across the capital, Kabul, many girls had arrived at high schools Wednesday morning excited to return to the campuses, and some schools did open, at least briefly. But as news spread that the Taliban had reversed their decision, many left in tears.
In recent months, the international community has made girls’ education a central condition of foreign aid and any future recognition of the Taliban. Under the Taliban’s first regime, from 1996 to 2001, the group barred women and girls from school and most employment.
Aziz-ur-Rahman Rayan, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education, said in a phone interview that Taliban officials had decided on Tuesday not to allow girls above the sixth grade to return to school yet. He attributed the decision to a lack of a religious uniform for girls and the lack of female teachers for girls, among other issues.
The decision came a little more than a week before a pledging conference where the United Nations had hoped donor countries would commit millions of dollars in badly needed aid, as Afghanistan grapples with an economic collapse that has left over half of the population without sufficient food to eat. It is unclear whether donors will be willing to do so following the Taliban’s abrupt reversal on the key commitment of girl’s education.
“It creates a lot of challenges in terms of how is the world going to engage with them and try to stop Afghans from starving when there’s no space to negotiate and convince the Taliban to shave off even the sharpest edges of their rights abuses,” said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
The United Nations and the United States condemned the decision on Wednesday.
“I’m deeply troubled by multiple reports that the Taliban are not allowing girls above grade 6 to return to school,” tweeted Ian McCary, the chief of mission for U.S. Embassy Kabul, currently operating out of Doha, Qatar. “This is very disappointing & contradicts many Taliban assurances & statements.”
Many Afghan girls had waited for months to hear whether they would be allowed to return to school, after the Taliban seized control of the country. When schools reopened in September for grades 7 through 12, Taliban officials told only male students to report for their studies, saying that girls would be allowed to return after security improved and enough female teachers could be found to keep classes fully segregated by sex.
Later, Taliban officials insisted that Afghan girls and women would be able to go back to school in March, and many Western officials seized on that promise as a deadline that would have repercussions for the Taliban’s efforts to eventually secure international recognition and the lifting of at least some sanctions.
In recent months, the Taliban had also come under mounting pressure to permit girls to attend high school from international donors, aid from which has helped keep Afghanistan from plunging further into a humanitarian catastrophe set off by the collapse of the former government and Western sanctions that crippled the country’s banking system.
One video posted on social media on Wednesday showed a high school student in Kabul breaking down into tears as a local television reporter asked her about how she felt after hearing the announcement that she could not return to school.
“I swear to God I wept, but today I was very upset. What should I say? I cannot say anything. What do we do with them?” she responded, referring to the Taliban.