Home / Politics / News /  Afghanistan’s Taliban prohibit girls from attending secondary school, as boys return to classrooms
Listen to this article

KABUL : Teenage Afghan girls weren’t allowed to return to school on Saturday as classrooms across the country reopened for the first time since the Taliban took power last month, raising fears that their new fundamentalist government will permanently ban secondary education for girls.

The absence of teenage girls in classrooms, while their male peers returned, followed a decree issued by the Taliban on Friday ordering male students and teachers to return to high schools and religious seminaries.

The statement from the ministry of education didn’t mention girls, amounting to a de facto ban for now on them going to secondary school. The Taliban have allowed girls up to sixth grade to attend school, but they will be taught in separate classrooms from boys.

Some private universities have also been allowed to open classrooms for girls, though most female students appear to be staying home out of fear. Afghanistan’s universities are regulated by a separate ministry from the ministry of education.

The news raises fresh fears as to how the Taliban will treat Afghan women. They have pledged to respect the rights of women within the limits of Islam, but haven’t fully elaborated on what those limits are. When the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s, they imposed draconian restrictions on women, banning them from most workplaces and education and forbidding them from leaving the house without a male guardian.

“All the girls are depressed now. They want to study and work," said a teacher at Malalai girls’ high school in Kabul, who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “Some of the girls were in their final semester. They were just one step short of graduating and getting their diplomas, but look, now they don’t know what to do," she said.

Narges Hussaini, a 14-year-old eighth-grade student at Jebrael girls’ school in the western city of Herat, said she couldn’t fathom not being able to study.

“I have worked so hard in the past eight years and have always been the best student in my class. I want to become a doctor and help my people," she said. “I have very big dreams. I can’t give up on them."

Rahila Amir Mohammad, a female teacher at Habibia primary school for girls in Kabul, where preteen girls returned to the classroom on Saturday, dressed in black dresses and white headscarves, said her school used to teach boys and girls together. However, the Taliban now has ordered them to separate the students by gender.

Taliban officials have said they would consider allowing girls to attend schools once the security situation allows, a stance that echoes the movement’s policies when it was last in power in the late 1990s. At that time, girls weren’t allowed to attend school due to supposed security concerns, but the Taliban never formally banned girls’ education. The Taliban have in recent years followed similar policies in areas under their control.

“Afghan women remember very well that in 1996 to 2001 they weren’t told that they could never study or work. They were told to be patient and wait for a day that never came. So this moment feels very familiar," said Heather Barr, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Women’s Rights Division, with expertise in Afghanistan. “There is no reason for much optimism that this ban will end," she said.

The United Nations said it welcomed the reopening of secondary schools, which had been closed for months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are deeply worried, however, that many girls may not be allowed back at this time," Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore said Saturday.

The U.N. has asked the Taliban to clarify when girls will be allowed to return to school, and diplomats are still hopeful that the new Afghan government won’t impose a permanent ban, according to people familiar with the conversations.

“We hope that by next week, girls’ schools will reopen," said Sediqa Nuristani, the principal of Malalai high school in Kabul. “Otherwise, the situation will be chaotic and our children’s future will be ruined."

Some girls’ schools in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif reported that they had been allowed to welcome girls back in the classrooms, despite the ban elsewhere.

In Kabul, some boys stayed home in solidarity with their female schoolmates.

“I didn’t go to school today to show my disagreement with the Taliban, and to protest them forbidding girls going to school," said Rohullah, an 18-year-old 12th-grade student at Wahdat Male school in the capital. “Women make up half the society. This shows that the Taliban haven’t changed. I will not show up at school until girls’ schools are open too," he said.

Despite pledges that they support women’s education and employment, Taliban leaders have effectively barred most Afghan women from work. Last month, the movement called men back into government offices, but said security concerns made it unsafe for women. Health and education are the only main sectors where some women have returned to their jobs. In the 1990s, the Taliban also allowed women to work in those sectors.

In a highly symbolic move, the Taliban have handed over the building of the previous government’s ministry of women’s affairs to the newly re-established ministry for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue.

That ministry in the 1990s was tasked with enforcing the Taliban’s fundamentalist Islamic laws, often by beating women who broke the strict dress code or ventured out in public without a male guardian.

The international community has some economic leverage it can use to try to exert moderating influence over the Taliban, as the U.S. and other Western countries have frozen more than $9 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign assets—nearly its entire reserves—and halted most humanitarian aid. That has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in the country, but also posed a severe challenge to the Taliban as they try to govern.

“The international community doesn’t have a lot of cards but it still has a few, and it should use them in defense of women’s rights," Ms. Barr said. “It faces the tricky task of trying to stem the humanitarian crisis while also exerting leverage—this is hard but not impossible, if the political will is there," she said.

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout