Wednesday was set to be the first day back to school for students in Afghanistan, but late on Tuesday night, the Taliban administration made the abrupt decision not to allow girls beyond sixth grade to return. After seizing power last August, the Taliban made a number of public promises that education would in fact be available to all girls and women, likely in the hopes of securing international support. Instead, teenage girls across the country returned to school on Wednesday in droves, according to the New York Times, and were turned away.
On Monday, Taliban officials said they would welcome all students, including girls, back for the new school year. Ministry spokesman Mawlvia Aziz Ahmad Rayan told the Associated Press on Tuesday that all girls would be allowed to return, noting that because it’s a “sensitive and cultural issue,” the Taliban wouldn’t insist on girls’ schooling in areas where it was largely opposed or facilities couldn’t be separated by gender. Later that evening, Taliban officials made the choice to go back on their word and prevent girls from pursuing an education beyond their sixth year of schooling.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Aziz-ur-Rahman Rayan, told The New York Times that the decision was made due to a lack of female teachers and there not yet being appropriate uniforms available for girls. Under the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, women and girls weren’t allowed to study at all. External relations and donor representative from the Taliban, Waheedullah Hashmi, cited a different reason for the cancellation, telling the Associated Press that the Taliban administration fears offering girls a secondary education could alienate their rural supporters, stating that most of rural Afghanistan is opposed. “We don’t say they will be closed forever,” he said.
On behalf of The Malala Fund, a non-profit that advocates for girls’ education worldwide, Malala Yousafzai released a statement saying, “I had one hope for today: that Afghan girls walking to school would not be sent back home. But the Taliban did not keep their promise. They will keep finding excuses to stop girls from learning – because they are afraid of educated girls and empowered women.”
Since the Taliban’s return to power, many schools for girls and women across the country have been forced to close, while few provinces continued providing education for all students, the Times reports. Private schools and universities in cities like Kabul had not yet been interrupted. Last September, when the Taliban Ministry of Education ordered all male students and teachers from 6th to 12th grade to report back to school, they didn’t mention whether or not girls should return as well, stoking fears that their educations might be at risk again. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told CNN at the time that the administration was working on creating a secure transportation system for girls to access schooling. Heather Barr, who focuses on women’s rights in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, told NPR that during their previous rule, they claimed girls could return to school once the “conditions were right.” However, Barr said, “That moment never arrived. And today it feels like it will never arrive this time either.”