Many baffled by Taliban’s reneging on girls’ education pledge

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN –
A news anchor on TOLO TV in Afghanistan cried as he read the announcement. Images of girls crying after being kicked out of school have flooded social media. Aid groups and many others remained baffled.

The Taliban have so far refused to explain their sudden decision to backtrack on a pledge to allow girls to go to school beyond sixth grade. Schools were due to reopen to older girls on Wednesday, at the start of the new school year.

The ban even caught the Taliban-appointed Ministry of Education off guard. In many places across Afghanistan, some upper class girls have gone back to school, only to be told to go home.

The move may have been designed to appease the Taliban’s hardline base, but it came at the cost of further alienation from the international community. The world has been reluctant to formally recognize Afghanistan’s new rulers, fearing that the Taliban will impose similar harsh measures and restrictions – particularly limiting women’s rights to education and work – as when they ruled the country in the late 1990s.

The United Nations children’s agency told The Associated Press on Thursday that it was taken aback by the announcement.

“I think yesterday was a very confusing day for all of us,” said Jeannette Vogelaar, Education Officer at UNICEF Afghanistan.

“We were caught off guard,” said Sam Mort, communications officer for UNICEF Afghanistan. “All the messages, all the actions that had taken place led us to believe that schools were going to reopen, and from what we understand, that is what our counterparts in the Ministry of Education also believed.”

Ahead of the planned reopening, in remote and deeply conservative villages – where female teachers may not have been available to educate girls – arrangements were made for older male teachers, considered acceptable, to step in and teach girls-only classes beyond sixth grade. .

Coincidentally or not, Taliban leaders were summoned to the southern province of Kandahar on Wednesday amid rumors of a cabinet reshuffle, which was later denied. Yet reports persisted of deteriorating health among the elderly, Taliban-appointed prime minister Hasan Akhund, a hardliner.

Since the Taliban took power in mid-August in the final weeks of the chaotic withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, there have been reports of divisions among the Taliban leadership, with lines drawn between the tough and the pragmatic.

It’s unclear whether a fight between the Taliban over how to govern the country could have contributed to Wednesday’s ban, but Torek Farhadi, an analyst who has advised former Afghan governments, called it a misfire.

“They really screwed up by not keeping their word,” he said of the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s PenPath Volunteers, a group that works to promote education for all programs in rural areas, plans to launch protests against the Taliban ban, said Matiullah Wesa, the organization’s founder.

Founded in 2009 by two brothers from the Taliban heartland in southern Kandahar, the organization has secret schools and thousands of volunteers distributing school supplies across the country.

On Wednesday in Kabul, sisters Raihana Mirzakhail, 18, and Suria Mirzakhail, 17, showed up at their school Mawlana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi. Their teacher began to reduce attendance for the eleventh grade, when another teacher came into the classroom and told all the girls to go home.

“We were told it wasn’t our school anymore,” Suria said. “We have become so desperate.” She and her sister dreamed of going to college.

“They broke our hearts…we have nothing else to do at home,” Raihana said. “Other Islamic countries allow their boys and girls to be educated and that is why they can progress.”

On TOLO TV, announcer Sebghat Sepehr broke down on Wednesday while interviewing Soraya Paikin, former deputy minister of higher education, and rights activist Mahboba Siraj about the ban.

His voice cracked, he began to cry and struggled to finish his question.

——

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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