Girls’ schools across Afghanistan will hopefully reopen by late March, a senior Taliban leader has told the Associated Press, offering the first timeline for the resumption of high schools for girls since the group retook power in mid-August.
Speaking to journalists on Saturday, Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for Afghanistan’s government and deputy minister of culture and information, said the group’s education department would open classrooms for all girls and women in the Afghan New Year, which starts on March 21.
Although the Taliban has not officially banned girls’ education, the group’s fighters have shuttered girls’ secondary schools and barred women from public universities in some parts of the country.
Girls in most of Afghanistan have not been allowed back to school beyond grade 7 since the Taliban takeover, and reversing that has been one of the main demands of women’s rights activists and the international community for months.
Education for girls and women “is a question of capacity,” Mujahid said in the interview. “We are trying to solve these problems by the coming year,” so that schools and universities can open, he added.
The international community, reluctant to formally recognise a Taliban-run administration, is wary that the group could impose harsh measures similar to its previous rule 20 years ago. At the time, women were banned from education, work and public life.
“We are not against education,” Mujahid stressed, speaking at the culture and information ministry in Kabul.
“In many provinces, the higher classes (girls’ school) are open, but in some places where it is closed, the reasons are economic crisis and the framework, which we need to work on in areas which are overcrowded. And for that we need to establish the new procedure,” he said.
Girls older than grade 7 have been allowed back to classrooms in state-run schools in about a dozen of the country’s 34 provinces.
‘Education for girls is a crime’
High school student Anzorat, who gave only her first name, expressed doubt.
“I don’t think they will reopen girls’ school because they have said so many things but haven’t followed up. If they really open the schools again it would be the best for girls,” she said.
“From the Taliban’s perspective education for girls is a crime, if it wasn’t like this they wouldn’t have banned them from schools,” the 19-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Girls and boys must be completely segregated in schools, said Mujahid, adding that the biggest obstacle so far has been finding or building enough dorms, or hostels, where girls could stay while going to school.
In heavily populated areas, it is not enough to have separate classrooms for boys and girls – separate school buildings are needed, he said.
“We don’t lack the manpower or human resources, we need the economic cooperation for the Afghan people, we need cooperation in trading, we need to establish good diplomatic relations with other countries,” he said, adding that Afghanistan needs humanitarian assistance.
‘The big obstacle for girls’
In the capital, Kabul, private universities and high schools have continued to operate uninterrupted. Most are small and classes have always been segregated.
“Restarting girls’ schools is a good thing, [but] they need to be firm on their promise. These words should not just be for the sake of taking a stand,” Kabul-based women’s rights activist Fatima Rae told Al Jazeera.
The Taliban does “not like to see young girls at all”, she said.
“The big obstacle for girls [in Afghanistan] is that the Taliban says they should only leave the house with a mahram [male guardian],” she told Al Jazeera, explaining that this was a challenge many girls have to overcome when it comes to studying and working, and even basic freedoms such as movement.
In a directive issued last month, Taliban authorities said women seeking to travel long distances should not be allowed on road transport unless they are accompanied by a close male relative. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice also called on vehicle owners to refuse rides to women not wearing headscarves.
“The second problem is that if women are not allowed to work, education is meaningless,” Rae said.
While the Taliban clearly banned women from holding positions of leadership, they have not announced other sectors where women are officially barred.
On Monday, the UN said Taliban leaders are “institutionalising large scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls”.
A group of UN human rights experts said they were concerned about “systematic efforts to exclude women from the social, economic, and political spheres across the country”.
The international community has been sceptical of Taliban announcements, saying it will judge the group by its actions – even as the world scrambles to provide much-needed aid to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that the UN chief warned could endanger the lives of millions.
The country’s economy, battered by decades of war, is near collapse after the US froze nearly $10bn in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank and international financial institutions suspended funding following the collapse of the Western-backed administration of President Ashraf Ghani.
Major aid agencies pulled out or suspended operations following US sanctions in a major blow to the aid-dependent country.
Earlier this month, the UN launched a $5bn appeal for Afghanistan, the single largest appeal for one country.
The Taliban has been struggling to get international recognition to end its isolation, which has not helped the situation on the ground.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, appealed for economic cooperation, trade and “stronger diplomatic relations”.
So far, neither Afghanistan’s neighbours nor the UN seem ready to grant formal recognition, which would help open up the Afghan economy.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for greater economic development, saying it’s critical to rapidly inject liquidity into the Afghan economy “and avoid a meltdown that would lead to poverty, hunger and destitution for millions.”
Additional reporting by Mohsin Khan Momand from Kabul