The Taliban have reversed a decision to allow teenage girls back to secondary school despite repeated assurances they could resume classes from Wednesday, sparking international condemnation and leaving desperate students stranded outside campuses.
Schools were scheduled to reopen in Afghanistan on Wednesday for the new academic year. Girls have been allowed to attend primary school and the Taliban had said students from Grade 7, or about age 13, would be allowed to resume classes for the first time since the militants seized power last August.
But the Taliban made a U-turn on Wednesday morning, announcing that girls’ high schools would remain closed “until further notice”, according to the official Bakhtar News Agency, which said girls’ uniforms were not in compliance with Islamic law.
“Millions of children, girls and boys, but especially girls and their families, will have to live with the trauma and pain of today,” said Freshta Karim, a children’s rights activist and founder of Charmaghz, an organisation providing mobile libraries for children.
Karim said her two nieces, 12 and 17, had been asked to leave their school after they had already entered their classrooms. “The Taliban entered with guns,” she added.
The future of girls’ education has become one of the most contentious issues in Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power. The hardline Islamist group banned women from studying or working when they previously ruled the country in the 1990s, part of a series of policies that made them international pariahs.
The Taliban claimed to have dropped their objection to girls’ education, arguing they had reformed in order to gain international recognition and rebuild financial ties with the west.
Soon after taking power the Taliban said they would defend women’s rights “within the framework of Islamic law”. In parts of the country, women have been allowed to continue working in some areas such as healthcare.
But diplomats and analysts remain deeply sceptical. Weeda Mehran, a lecturer on Afghanistan at Exeter University, said she believed the girls’ education was a “bargaining chip” for the Taliban to gain international recognition. “The Taliban are using this as an opportunity to push back and ask for recognition, ” she added.
Wednesday’s reversal was widely condemned internationally. Rina Amiri, US special envoy to Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter that the decision “not only weakens confidence in the Taliban’s commitments but further dashes the hopes of families for a better future for their daughters”.
The move left students, many of whom had already arrived for what they expected to be their first day at school, stunned.
One 17-year-old in western Kabul said she was preparing her school bag when she saw on the news that girls were being turned away. “They promised us schools would open but they didn’t. Boys were allowed, we weren’t . Now I ask myself: will I be able to go to school or not?” she said.
Women have faced widespread harassment and discrimination at the hands of Taliban officials and militants, with activists arrested and others fleeing the country.
Afghanistan has been plunged into a devastating financial and humanitarian crisis since the Taliban re-took power. The foreign aid that made up about 80 per cent of the previous government’s budget was suspended and aid agencies say 98 per cent of Afghans do not have enough food and millions are at risk of starvation.