The Taliban ordered girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan to shut on March 23 just hours after they reopened, sparking heartbreak and confusion over the policy reversal by the hardline Islamist group – and international condemnation.
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 said the decision came after a meeting late on March 22 by senior officials in the southern city of Kandahar, the movement’s de facto power centre and conservative spiritual heartland.
The date on March 23 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 12-19 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 US 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.
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 said.
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 1996-2001.
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.