KABIUL, Afghanistan — 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 Islamist group — and international condemnation.

AFP/ MANILA BULLETIN


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 clear explanation for the shift, even as officials held a ceremony in the capital Kabul 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.

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.

“I see my students crying and reluctant to leave classes,” said Palwasha, a teacher at Omara Khan girls’ school in the capital.

“It is very painful to see them crying.”

The United States condemned the reversal, with State Department spokesman Ned Prince calling it a “betrayal of public commitments that the Taliban leadership made to the Afghan people and to the international community”.

“Today’s announcement will have an immediate impact on the Taliban’s ability to gain legitimacy and international political support,” Price warned.

The head of the UN’s educational organisation UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, called the situation a “major setback”.

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.

– ‘Ideological differences’ –
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 told AFP.

There were fears that, after seizing control, the Taliban would shut down all formal education for girls — as they did during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

At the time of the takeover, schools were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Boys and younger girls were allowed to resume classes two months later, raising hopes the Taliban had softened their stance.

The international community has made the right to education for all a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the new regime, with several nations and organisations offering to pay teachers.

Students from Sadar Kabuli Girls High School staged protests after they were told to leave, witnesses and activists said.

“They left after the Taliban came and told them to go home. It was a peaceful protest,” a shopkeeper in the area said.

– Slew of restrictions –
The Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on women, effectively banning them from many government jobs, policing what they wear and preventing them from travelling outside of their cities alone.

They have also detained several women’s rights activists.

Even if schools do reopen fully, barriers to girls returning to education remain, with many families suspicious of the Taliban and reluctant to allow their daughters outside.

Others see little point in girls learning at all.

Women have been barred from returning to most government jobs since the Taliban’s return and there is little productive private-sector employment in a country with a crippled economy.

“Those girls who have finished their education have ended up sitting at home and their future is uncertain,” said Heela Haya, 20, from Kandahar, who decided to quit school.

“What will be our future?”

UN chief Antonio Guterres said he “deeply” regretted Wednesday’s development, calling it a “profound disappointment and deeply damaging for Afghanistan”.