The Taliban have effectively banned girls from secondary education in Afghanistan, by ordering high schools to re-open only for boys.
Girls were not mentioned in Friday’s announcement, which means boys will be back at their desks next week after a one-month hiatus, while their sisters will still be stuck at home.
The Taliban education ministry said secondary school classes for boys in grades seven to 12 would resume on Saturday, the start of the Afghan week. “All male teachers and students should attend their educational institutions,” the statement said. The future of girls and female teachers, stuck at home since the Taliban took control, was not addressed.
The edict makes Afghanistan the only country on earth to bar half its population from getting a secondary education.
In a further sign that the recently announced Taliban government is tightening restrictions on women, the former ministry of women’s affairs building in Kabul has been handed over to the newly re-established ministry for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue.
This was the group’s feared enforcer in the 1990s, charged with beating women who violated bars on everything from going out in public without a male guardian to an obsessively prescriptive dress code that even forbade high heels.
The decision on education has worrying echoes of the tactics the Taliban used in the 1990s, when they last ruled Afghanistan, to bar girls from school without issuing a formal prohibition.
“Education and literacy are so strongly valued in Islam that the Taliban could not ban girls schools on Islamic grounds, so they always said they would open them when security improved. It never did. They never opened the schools,” said Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, who worked in Afghanistan at the time.
That decision did not spell the end of education for women, with some small classes in homes, and schools run in provinces by charities, she said. However, it did turn the basic childhood right to seek an education into a high-stakes gamble.
“There was always the fear that they could be closed in a moment. Or that teachers would be beaten or detained. This happened. Teaching girls was risky, a brave act of resistance, but not impossible.”
The Taliban appeared somewhat more open to women’s education when they ordered all primary school students back to class, and said women could study for degrees, albeit in a strictly gender-segregated system that will dramatically lower the range and quality of women’s options.
But if the high schools do not reopen for girls, the commitments to allow university education would become meaningless once the current cohort of students graduated.
The Taliban government is courting international recognition and funds, as Afghanistan hovers on the brink of economic collapse, and is aware that the international community is watching its treatment of women particularly closely.
Despite this, its leaders have already effectively barred the majority of Afghan women from work for the last month, calling their male colleagues back into offices but saying security conditions mean it is not safe for women.
That reason was used to prevent women from working for the entire five-year period the group controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Now, as then, only some women in the health and education sectors are back at their jobs.
However, the Taliban are now in charge of a capital, and a country, very different from the war-battered city they took over in 1996. They are likely to face strong pushback from women, including older students, and the many Afghan fathers and brothers who want the women in their families to get an education.
“The population they have given themselves the challenge of trying to rule has doubled in size and expectations have gone sky-high compared to the 1990s. We can anticipate there will be reactions and maybe the Taliban will be forced to backpedal or consider some differences,” said Prof Michael Semple from the Mitchell Institute of Global Peace, Security and Justice.
“In some areas [in the 1990s] the Taliban simply tolerated girls’ primary schools, and in other areas where people challenged them they did back down. In Jaghori girls went on hunger strike to defend their education, and they won. So the story does not end with these Taliban edicts.”