The Taliban reopened schools in Afghanistan after the winter break Wednesday but continued a ban on grade seven to 12 girls, saying they still need time to draw up a plan for them in line with Islamic law or Sharia.
The move swiftly drew domestic and international criticism of the Islamist group for backtracking on its commitment that all girls around the country would be allowed to return to school March 23, which also marks the start of the school year for most Afghan provinces.
“We inform all girls’ high schools and those schools that are having female students above class six that they are off until the next directive,” said the Taliban notice.
Wednesday’s last minute amendment to the earlier Taliban directive that schools around the country would open for all students left many girls in tears in the capital, Kabul, who had arrived at campuses in excitement in the morning but were told to go back home.
“I was in tears of joy until yesterday after hearing the news about the reopening of my school. But today I want to cry because I was unable to enter the school,” a girl told the Afghan TOLO news channel before bursting into tears.
“We all got disappointed, and we all became totally hopeless when the principal told us, she was also crying,” the Reuters news agency quoted another student, not named for security reasons.
“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 acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who is working in Qatar.
“This is very disappointing & contradicts many Taliban assurances & statements. All Afghan youth deserve to be educated,” McCary said.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s permanent ambassador-designate to the United Nations, insisted the suspension of girls’ education was a temporary step.
“There is no issue of banning girls from schools; it is only a technical issue of deciding on form of school uniform for girls. This is the cause of postponement,” Shaheen said in a statement he sent to reporters. “We hope the uniform issue is resolved and finalized as soon as possible,” he added.
Aziz Ahmad Rayan, the spokesman for the Education Ministry in Kabul, told VOA the overnight orders to stop girls from attending school had come from the Taliban leadership and the ministry was bound to enforce them.
“Tears of every Afghan sister are extremely valuable for us. But as employees of the Islamic Emirate we have no role in the decision-making process,” Rayan said, using the official name of the Taliban government.
The Islamist group barred high school girls from returning to the classroom after taking control of Afghanistan seven months ago. Taliban officials have repeatedly cited financial constraints and a lack of arrangements in schools for female students in accordance with Sharia.
When they were previously in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban had banned all women from leaving home unless accompanied by a close male relative and girls from receiving an education.
The group has pledged in recent meetings and speeches at international platforms it would govern the country differently this time. But the imposition of multiple restrictions on Afghan women has raised questions and concerns about human rights abuses.
“This morning’s announcement that teenage girls across the country will not be able to attend secondary education until further notice casts a dark shadow on the start of the school year in Afghanistan,” said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) charity.
“Our teams on the ground tell us that in places where we work, girls were excited to return to school after eight months of closure, but arrived this morning only to be then turned away,” Egeland lamented.
“Limiting girls’ schooling to primary education will devastate their future and the future of Afghanistan.”
Girls’ secondary schools have been mostly closed in Afghanistan for the past eight months, except in 6 of 34 provinces, according to the NRC.
Qualified female teachers are scarce in remote areas, largely due to a lack of girls’ enrollment past primary grades, which further limits access for girls, making the issue a cyclical one, the charity says.
UNICEF estimates that four million children in Afghanistan are out of school, of which 60% are girls.
“Our team has conveyed our deep concern to the Taliban and has underlined the urgency of opening schools for all children,” George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF regional director, said in a statement.
“We want to see all children in Afghanistan in school, learning the skills they need for their futures.”
The global community has made access to education and work for Afghan women a key demand for any future recognition of the male-only Taliban government and restoring non-humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, where millions face hunger and poverty.
“Taliban had seven months to figure this out. If they were not able to organize in seven months, we can conclude that they are not capable of opening girls schools,” said analyst Tarek Farhadi, a former Afghan government official.
“It amounts to taking girls hostage in Afghanistan. Afghans and the world will not let them do so,” lamented Farhadi.