The Taliban ordered girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan to shut on Wednesday just hours after they reopened, sparking heartbreak and confusion over the policy reversal by the hardline group.
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 coherent explanation 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 told AFP the decision came after a meeting late Tuesday by senior officials in Kandahar, the movement’s de facto power centre and conservative spiritual heartland. Wednesday’s date 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 to 19 would be segregated — even though most Afghan schools are already same-sex — and operate according to Islamic principles.
Crestfallen girls at Zarghona High School in Kabul tearfully packed up their belongings after teachers halted the lesson. “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.” US special envoy to Afghanistan Rina Amiri tweeted the move “weakens confidence in the Taliban commitments” and “further dashes the hopes of families for a better future for their daughters”.
Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai 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 told AFP.
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 to 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.
Students from Sadar Kabuli Girls High School staged protests after they were told to leave, witnesses and activists said. “They left after the Taliban came and told them to go home. It was a peaceful protest,” a shopkeeper in the area said.