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Taliban reverses decision, barring Afghan girls from attending school beyond 6th grade

Girls enter a school before class in Kabul on Sept. 12, 2021. In a surprise decision, the hardline leadership of Afghanistan's new rulers has decided against opening educational institutions to girls beyond sixth grade.
Felipe Dana
Girls enter a school before class in Kabul on Sept. 12, 2021. In a surprise decision, the hardline leadership of Afghanistan's new rulers has decided against opening educational institutions to girls beyond sixth grade.

Updated March 23, 2022 at 2:27 PM ET

KABUL, Afghanistan — In a morning of tears and anger, the Taliban on Wednesday reneged on a promise to allow Afghan girls to attend secondary school, as thousands of them turned up at their old school gates in tidy uniforms and carrying their school bags.

The abrupt about-face revived worries that the Taliban might keep teenage girls away from education indefinitely. When the militant religious movement first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, girls were not allowed to study.

"Some of my classmates began weeping," said Sakina Jafari, an 18-year-old who hoped to resume her year 11 classes. "We were so excited to return. And now we don't know what will happen to us."

Another young woman who spoke to Afghan news outlet TOLO burst into tears as she described being turned away after waiting 186 days – she had counted – for school to resume. "What is our crime? That we are girls?" she raged.

Amid widespread condemnation, the Taliban gave no indication of when these classrooms might reopen. Most girls and young women have been prevented from attending secondary school since the Taliban swept to power in August.

Afghanistan's new rulers reopened schools for boys, and for girls up to the 6th grade. They subsequently allowed women to attend college under strict segregation from male students and a rigidly-enforced dress code. But secondary school remained off limits.

However, Taliban officials said Monday that they would allow all students — including girls at the secondary education level — to attend classes beginning Wednesday, the start of the Afghan new year. But just as the girls turned up to their school gates, they were sent home by Taliban officials who told them to wait for an official announcement.

One senior official insisted the Taliban had not reneged but needed more time to decide on a school uniform for teenage girls.

"There is no issue of banning girls from schools," said Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban's permanent ambassador-designate to the United Nations in response to a question by NPR. "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 was echoed by one Kabul school teacher, who requested anonymity because she didn't want to anger Taliban officials. She said that as girls entered her classroom, the principal immediately headed them off, saying, "'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.'"

The teacher says her students were distressed. They argued that they were wearing modest clothes already – loose shirts and pants and headscarves. "One of them said, 'we are ready to wear burkas but please let us stay,'" she recalled one young woman pleading. "But we told them they had to leave."

An article on the pro-Taliban Bakhtar News Agency which celebrated the return of students to school reported that the spokesman for the Education Ministry, Mawlawi Aziz Ahmad Ryan, said that "schools for women from the sixth grade above are closed until further notice."

Ryan said a plan would be formulated "in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture and traditions, as well as the ruling of the Islamic Emirate."

Afghan students leave classes in a primary school in Kabul, on March 27, 2021.
Rahmat Gul / AP
Afghan students leave classes in a primary school in Kabul, on March 27, 2021.

The phrase "culture and traditions" is often shorthand in the Muslim world for imposing rules that deny women their rights under Islam on the basis that local culture does not permit it. Islamic teaching and practice encourages men and women to study and learn.

Western countries have made girls returning to school a key conditionfor restarting aid to the cash-strapped Afghan government. These donors largely cut off aid after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban seized power. For others, allowing Afghan girls to receive an education is a prerequisite for recognizing the Taliban's rule.

"I deeply regret today's announcement by Taliban authorities in Afghanistan that girls' education from the sixth grade has been suspended until further notice," said the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement. "I urge the Taliban de facto authorities to open schools for all students without any further delay."

The U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Ian McCary tweeted that he was "deeply troubled" by the policy reversal.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face by a Taliban fighter in Pakistan for her advocacy over girl's education, said she was disappointed. "I had one hope for today: that Afghan girls walking to school would not be sent back home. But the Taliban did not keep their promise. They will keep finding excuses to stop girls from learning – because they are afraid of educated girls and empowered women," she said in a statement.

The decision reflects reported splits in the Taliban's leadership

The Taliban's abrupt reversal highlights what analysts say is an internal debate over whether girls should attend high school at all.

Those divisions are exemplified by a tweet from Ahmad Yasir, the deputy head from the office of the first deputy prime minister. He wrote that he saw no religious justification for girls not to attend school, but subsequently deleted the tweet.

Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, who focuses on women's rights in Afghanistan, says the latest news "is absolutely devastating."

She said she feared it may signal a repeat of when the Taliban did not allow girls to attend school when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

It was then that the Taliban said closing schools for girls was "a temporary situation," Barr said.

"And they would allow girls to study ... once conditions were right," she said.

But that moment never arrived," Barr said. "And today it feels like it will never arrive this time either."

Hadid reported from Islamabad; Qazizai reported from Kabul.

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Fazelminallah Qazizai
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.