Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers decided against opening schools for girls above the sixth grade, reneging on a previous promise and opting to appease their hardline base at the expense of further alienating the international community.
The unexpected decision, confirmed by a Taliban official Wednesday, came at the start of the new school year in Afghanistan. It is bound to disrupt Taliban efforts to win recognition from potential international donors, at a time when the country is mired in a worsening humanitarian crisis.
The international community has been urging Taliban leaders to open schools and give women their right to public space. A statement by the ministry earlier in the week urged “all students” to come to school.
The decision to postpone a return of girls going to school in higher levels appeared to be a concession to the rural and deeply tribal backbone of the hardline Taliban movement, that in many parts of the countryside are reluctant to send their daughters to school.
The decision to cancel the return of girls to school came late in the night on Tuesday, Waheedullah Hashmi, external relations and donor representative with the Taliban-led administration, told The Associated Press.
“It was late last night that we received word from our leadership that schools will stay closed for girls,” said Hashmi. “We don’t say they will be closed forever.”
The surprise decision also comes as the movement’s leadership has been summoned to southern Kandahar by the reclusive Taliban leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, amid reports of a Cabinet shakeup, according to an Afghan leader, who is also a member of the leadership council.
He spoke on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorised to speak to the media. He said it is possible some of the senior interim Cabinet positions could be changed.
There have been persistent reports since the Taliban swept to power in August of differences among the senior leadership, with the more hardline among the movement at odds with the pragmatists among them.
The pragmatists reportedly want to see a greater engagement with the world and while staying true to their Islamic beliefs, be less harsh than when they last ruled Afghanistan, banning women from work and girls from schools.
Television is allowed in Afghanistan today, unlike in the past and women are not required to wear the all encompassing burqa but must wear the traditional hijab, covering their heads. Women have also returned to work in the health and education ministry and at Kabul International Airport at passport control and custom.
The Taliban were ousted in 2001 by a US-led coalition for harboring al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and returned to power after America’s chaotic departure last August.
Girls have been banned from school beyond Grade 6 in most of the country since the Taliban’s return. Universities opened up earlier this year in much of the country, but since taking power the Taliban edicts have been erratic and while a handful of provinces continued to provide education to all, most provinces closed educational institutions for girls and women.
In the capital Kabul, private schools and universities have operated uninterrupted.
The religiously-driven Taliban administration fears going forward with enrolling girls beyond Grade 6 could alienate their rural base, said Hashmi.
“The leadership hasn’t decided when or how they will allow girls to return to school,” Hashmi said. While he accepted that urban centres are mostly supportive of girls’ education, much of rural Afghanistan is opposed, particularly in tribal Pashtun regions.
“In some rural areas, a brother will disown a brother in the city if he finds out that he is letting his daughters go to school,” said Hashimi, adding that the Taliban leadership is trying to decide how to open education for girls beyond Grade 6 countrywide.
Most Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns. In their sweep through the country last year, other ethnics groups such as Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north of the country either joined the fight to give the Taliban their victory or simply chose not to fight.
“We did everything the Taliban asked in terms of Islamic dress and they promised that girls could go to school and now they have broken their promise,” said Mariam Naheebi, a local journalist who spoke to the Associated Press in the Afghan capital.
Naheebi has protested for women’s rights and says “they have not been honest with us”.