Afghanistan’s schools have reopened for the new academic year, but hundreds of thousands of teenage girls remain barred from attending classes as Taliban authorities ban their attendance in secondary school.
Education Minister Habibullah Agha confirmed in a statement that schools up to grade six “will currently be open for girls”, effectively retaining a ban on high school for female students.
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Madrassas, or Islamic schools, are the only education centres open for girls of all ages. Yalda, a ninth grader in Kabul, told Al Jazeera that the madrassa was good for enhancing her knowledge of religion.
But “the madrassa cannot help me become a doctor, because that’s done in school”, she said.
Tenth grader Sara said she daydreamed of schools reopening “all the time”.
“Maybe someday schools will reopen and my education will progress further. I will never lose hope,” she said.
Taliban authorities have imposed an austere interpretation of Islam since storming back to power in August 2021 after the withdrawal of United States-led foreign forces that backed the previous governments.
The ban on girls’ secondary education came into effect in March last year, just hours after the education ministry reopened schools for both girls and boys. No Muslim-majority country bans women’s education.
Taliban leaders, who also banned women from university education in December, have repeatedly claimed they will reopen secondary schools for girls once “conditions” have been met, including remodelling the syllabus along Islamic lines.
Taliban officials have justified the school ban and curbs on women’s freedom due to a lack of a “safe environment”. Some senior Taliban leaders, however, said that Islam granted women rights to education and work.
Similar assurances were made during the Taliban’s first stint in power between 1996 and 2001, but girls remained banned from high schools throughout their five-year rule.
Catherine Russell, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told Al Jazeera that the situation was “absolutely crushing”.
The ban “takes away their ability to participate in their community in a way where they can ultimately have jobs, become doctors or teachers”, she said.
In turn, that has a negative impact on the country’s economy and on a number of sectors where women had been making a difference.
“The health system relies on women. Nurses, doctors, need to be educated so that they can take a prominent place in the country,” Russell said. “The practical impact is devastating, and it’s also so crushing for these girls who have dreams.”
Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are prohibited from going to secondary school.
Women have also been effectively squeezed out of public life, removed from most government jobs or paid a fraction of their former salaries to stay at home.
They are also barred from going to parks, fairs, gyms and public baths, and must cover up in public.
The United Nations said Afghanistan under the Taliban government is the “most repressive country in the world” for women’s rights.
The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) urged the authorities on Tuesday to lift the ban on girls’ education.
“UNAMA reiterates its call to de facto authorities to reverse all discriminatory policies against women and girls,” the mission said on Twitter.
“They not only impede the aspirations of half of the population but are causing great damage to Afghanistan.”
The ban halts two decades of progress during which literacy rates among women almost doubled. The number of girls in school increased almost 20 times since 2001, from just 5,000 to more than 100,000 in 2021.
Haroun Rahimi, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan, wrote in an Al Jazeera op-ed that the ban was “causing incalculable harm to the Afghan youth and the future of the country”.
“However, the Taliban have been paying the salary of female schoolteachers for now. Remarkably, enrolment numbers in primary schools for both boys and girls have increased in some areas of the country as security has improved,” he said.
According to UNICEF’s Russell, the Taliban is “not a monolithic organisation”, and some among its ranks “understood that the country will never prosper and do well if half of the population is not able to participate”.
“They are essentially saying that for now they cannot go to school, and I would argue to them that these girls are human beings, that they have a right to healthcare, they have a right to an education and those rights need to be respected,” Russell said.
The international community has made the right to education for women a key condition in negotiations over aid and recognition of the current Taliban government.
No country has so far officially recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers.