Even where schools have reopened, not all girl students have returned to class
But in four northern Afghan provinces – where women have traditionally had more active roles in society than in the more conservative south and east – secondary schools for girls have also reopened, with the approval of local Taliban government officials. . The decision, which has not been widely publicized, was confirmed by teachers, students and a Taliban spokesman.
The move signals a willingness on the part of the Taliban to shape policy around cultural differences in Afghanistan, in contrast to the 1990s, when they imposed strict social rules on everyone under their rule.
In Balkh and Kunduz provinces, which include the north’s two largest cities, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, schools for teenage girls have been open for about a month. According to those who attended or were briefed on the meetings, top provincial Taliban officials met with school principals there and ordered them to bring the girls back to school.
Shamayal Sowaida, principal of Fatima Balkhi High School in Mazar-i-Sharif, welcomed the decision: “We and our students are very happy that girls’ schools have reopened and girls can continue their lessons.”
In Balkh, the Taliban’s top education official asked teachers to persuade girls to return to school. A local teacher informed about the meeting, the official said, “The girl students who are not coming to classes go and knock on their doors and ask them to come to school.”
Schools for teenage girls have also reopened in Sar-e-Pul and Jajjan provinces, with Taliban representatives often visiting them.
“Talibans come to school and check student attendance registers. If a teacher is sick, Taliban marks her absence,” said Sadaf, a class 10 student at Sar-e-Pul. “They tell us to come to school wearing Islamic hijabs, not wearing high heels or sandals, and not making noise while walking.”
Even where schools have reopened, not all girl students have returned to class. At a school in the northern city of Kunduz, a third of 3,000 students are absent, according to its principal. Many families have fled the city. Others do not rely on assurances from the local Taliban that girls are allowed to go to school. Some worry that Taliban fighters will harass their teenage daughters on their way to school.
The Taliban’s decision to severely restrict education for girls after taking power is one of the most convincing signs that the harsh rights of Afghan women are being withdrawn. How the new Kabul government treats women is a key marker of whether the Taliban has become more liberal – and acceptable to the international community – since toppling the Afghan republic on August 15.
In the late 1990s, the Taliban imposed harsh restrictions on Afghan women, barring them from education and work, and barring them from leaving home without a male guardian.
Akif Muhajer, spokesman for the Taliban’s Ministry of Repression and the Promotion of Virtue, which is tasked with enforcing religious observance, confirmed in an interview that high schools for girls were open in four northern provinces. He added that such a reopening “will proceed throughout the country.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
It is not clear how soon or if high schools for girls will open across the country. The Taliban leadership in Kabul has so far refrained from taking a clear stance on women’s education, with officials saying a committee of Islamic scholars should first investigate the issue.
Asked about the exclusion of girls from school, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaki said on Monday that the barrier was partly cultural. “In Afghanistan, one thing is what Afghans want. Another thing is what the international community wants,” he said during a public event in Doha, Qatar.
Northern Afghanistan is populated mostly by Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities, where attitudes toward women are more liberal than those of southern Afghanistan’s rural Pashtun stronghold, the Taliban’s cradle and traditional stronghold.
Akasha Heserne, a teacher in southern Helmand province, said she had been waiting for weeks for a Taliban local education official to answer whether high schools for girls could reopen.
“He didn’t give me any expected answers. He just told me, ‘We’re waiting for a plan,'” Ms. Heserne said. “How is it possible that schools are open in the north but not in the south? If there is a law, it should be implemented in every nook and corner of the country. Every officer is taking decisions on his own in his province.
There is more political resistance within Taliban ranks to allow girls to go to school in Afghanistan’s more culturally conservative south and east – and less pressure from the population to do so, said Pashtana Durrani, an Afghan education activist. Which is originally from southern Kandahar province.
“It is a decision which should have been taken by the leadership, but instead it has been taken in the provinces. It’s like a federal system,” said Ms. Durrani. “There is a sense that they are making decisions”. [to open girls’ schools] In places where they will not face challenges. And in the South they are facing more challenges. The Taliban are much more conservative in Kandahar. They see schools as infidel projects.”
Ms. Durrani decided to take matters into her own hands: Through her education charity, called Learn, she founded a secret school for teenage girls. The school, which has an enrollment of around 100 girls between the ages of 13 and 18, has been operating at an undisclosed location for about 10 days. He hopes it will be temporary.
Ms Durrani hopes that international pressure and the promise of humanitarian aid will eventually force the Taliban to reopen high schools for girls in all provinces. “They have to do something. If not for legitimacy, then for money,” she said.
It is not clear how long the girls’ schools that are now running will also remain open: Like other government employees, most teachers have not received salaries for months.
The Taliban government is broken. More than 70% of the civilian budget of the previous government came from international aid, which has mostly been suspended. More than $9 billion in central bank assets are frozen in the US and other western countries. The banking system is barely functioning. Revenue received through customs duties and taxation may only cover a fraction of public expenditure.
Teachers in northern Afghanistan say they are happy that their girls can go back to school, but their own financial situation remains shaky. Some cannot even afford to travel from their homes to schools.
“We are working as volunteers these days. We have not been paid in three months,” said Shamim Sayal Jamshed, principal of Cedarak Girls High School in Kunduz city. “But we are glad that the doors of schools for girls are open.”
—Jalauddin Nazri and Saeed Shah contributed to this article.