PESHAWAR, Pakistan – On March 23, Taliban expelled teenage girls who had arrived excited and carrying new textbooks from school gates throughout Afghanistan. Classrooms would be closed to girls from sixth grade onwards, the leaders said, until an appropriate dress code could be decided for girls and female teachers.
It was the first day schools had been opened to girls since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August. The Ministry of Education had only two days before said that all girls would be allowed to go to school.
Asked about the closure, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told NBC News that there were “several problems” at stake, but he had no details. “The management held its meeting recently and discussed the girls’ schools in detail. However, they decided to keep the schools closed until a new meeting, ”he said.
The flip-flop signals fundamental divisions within the Taliban between hard and moderate on how to govern the country, while the regime faces rising international condemnation in the midst of a spiraling humanitarian crisis.
“They have considered the various options available to them, they have dealt with internal divisions on these issues, and that is the path they seem to be choosing,” Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told NBC News after the ban.
The decision to exclude millions of girls from education has frustrated some members of the Taliban. Several Taliban leaders, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity as they are banned from speaking to the media, said many of their peers were not happy to deprive girls of their right to education.
“Look, more than half of our population is made up of women. How can you develop your country and build institutions when you prevent your women from getting an education?” asked a senior police officer and Taliban leader.
“This is not a wise decision as we cannot afford to annoy the Afghan people by banning girls’ education,” he said. “It should be our ultimate responsibility to create an environment in which girls are free to attend schools, colleges and universities in accordance with Islamic sharia and our local customs and traditions.”
Women were barred from going to school and working under the Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001, when the regime was overthrown by US forces after leaders refused to extradite Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.
The Taliban had promised to respect women’s rights under Islamic law and tradition when they regained control of the country in August last year.
Karimi, the Taliban spokesman, said schools will remain closed to girls beyond sixth grade until further approval from management, but could not provide further information.
When and if this will happen is still unclear. A meeting of the Council of Religious Scholars in the week following the ban decided to keep schools closed to girls indefinitely.
“The Ulema Council … declared that they are not against girls’ education, but before sending the girls to schools, they want to create a safe environment for them in the country,” a Taliban leader who requested anonymity for fear of to break the ban on talking about official issues with journalists, said after the meeting.
The council also discussed the issue of a dress code for girls, but said it considered it “a minor issue,” said two Taliban leaders with direct knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the media ban.
The school ban also signals inconsistencies in the Taliban’s policy towards girls’ education. Universities remain open to women, despite rumors that may soon change. Karimi said the rumors were false.
Some Taliban leaders have also secretly sent their own daughters to private schools in Qatar, according to a report published in January by the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Wisna Sultani, a 23-year-old female student in Kabul, said the Taliban’s decision “shows that the group has no obligation to respect the fundamental rights of women and Afghan citizens.”
“The world should break its silence against this blatant repression and the explicit violation of the rights of millions of female students in Afghanistan,” she said.
However, withholding aid as a lever to punish the Taliban for depriving millions of girls of their right to go to school threatens to exacerbate Afghanistan’s already serious humanitarian crisis. Education of girls remains one of the biggest concerns of the international community in the negotiations on whether the group should be recognized as the country’s leaders and release humanitarian aid.
“Everyone thought the high schools were going to open. … So this has thrown everything up in the air and left a lot of people struggling to think about how to get involved … with a group behaving this way , “said Barr of Human Rights Watch.
The issue of educating girls in Afghanistan has “some very serious consequences for people’s ability to eat and literally survive,” she continued. “This is a devastating, devastating decision for Afghans trying to survive and live decent lives in that country.”
About 95 percent of Afghans do not get enough food to eat, while 23 million suffer from acute hunger in March, according to the UN.
In a move that could further exacerbate the country’s economic woes, the Taliban last week imposed a ban on growing opium poppies, a crop farmer had approached to earn a living amid desperate food shortages.
The Taliban reversed its decision to allow teenage girls to study eight days before a UN conference in London on March 31, which aimed to raise $ 4.4 billion for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan from international donors, an appeal that exceeded efforts for Syria or Yemen.
The conference raised only half of its target, with representatives from Germany and Britain taking issue with the Taliban’s school ban at the last minute.
“Our potential for support will depend on how constructively the Taliban engages in key issues such as women’s and girls’ rights and also ethnic and religious minorities. … No nation can succeed if half of its population is retained,” he said. Liz Truss, British Foreign Secretary.
Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar and Rhoda Kwan from Taipei, Taiwan.