Afghanistan’s schools have reopened for the new academic year, but hundreds of thousands of teenage girls are still not allowed to attend classes because Taliban authorities have banned them from high school.
Education Minister Habibullah Agha confirmed in a statement that schools up to and including grade six will “currently be open to girls”, effectively preserving the high school ban on female students.
Madrasahs, or Islamic schools, are the only educational centers open to girls of all ages. Yalda, a ninth grader in Kabul, told Al Jazeera that the madrassa was good for increasing her knowledge of religion.
But “the madrassa cannot help me become a doctor, because that happens at school,” she said.
Tenth grader Sara said she daydreamed of schools reopening “all the time”.
“Maybe the schools will open again one day and my education will continue. I will never lose hope,” she said.
Taliban authorities have imposed an austere interpretation of Islam since returning to power in August 2021 following the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces that supported previous governments.
The ban on girls’ secondary education went into effect last March, just hours after the Ministry of Education reopened schools for both girls and boys. No Muslim-majority country prohibits female education.
Taliban leaders, who also banned women from university education in December, have repeatedly claimed they will reopen secondary schools for girls once “conditions” are met, including adjusting the syllabus along Islamic lines.
Taliban officials have justified school bans and restrictions on women’s freedoms on the basis of a lack of a “safe environment”. However, some senior Taliban leaders said Islam gave women rights to education and work.
Similar assurances were given during the Taliban’s first period in power between 1996 and 2001, but girls continued to be banned from secondary schools throughout their five-year rule.
Catherine Russell, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told Al Jazeera the situation was “absolutely crushing”.
The ban “takes away their ability to participate in their community in a way where they can eventually get a job, become a doctor or a teacher,” she said.
This in turn has a negative effect on the country’s economy and on a number of sectors where women made a difference.
“The health system depends on women. Nurses, doctors, need to be trained so they can be prominent in the country,” said Russell. “The practical impact is devastating, and it’s so crushing for these girls who have dreams.”
Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are not allowed to attend secondary school.
Women have also been effectively pushed out of public life, removed from most government jobs or paid a fraction of their former salary to stay at home.
They are also not allowed to go to parks, fairs, gyms and public baths and are required to cover up in public.
The United Nations said Afghanistan is the “most repressive country in the world” on women’s rights under the Taliban government.
The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) on Tuesday urged authorities to lift the ban on girls’ education.
“UNAMA reiterates its call to the de facto authorities to reverse all discriminatory policies against women and girls,” the mission said on Twitter.
“They not only hinder the aspirations of half the population, but also wreak havoc on Afghanistan.”
The ban halts two decades of progress in which women’s literacy rates nearly doubled. The number of girls in school has increased nearly 20 times since 2001, from just 5,000 to more than 100,000 by 2021.
Haroun Rahimi, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan, wrote in an Al Jazeera op-ed that the ban “inflicted incalculable damage on Afghanistan’s youth and the country’s future.”
“However, the Taliban are currently paying the salary of female teachers. Remarkably, primary school enrollments for both boys and girls have increased in some parts of the country as security has improved,” he said.
According to UNICEF’s Russell, the Taliban “is not a monolithic organization”, and some of its ranks “understood that the country will never prosper and prosper if half the population cannot participate”.
“They’re basically saying they can’t go to school for a while, and I’d say to them that these girls are human beings, they have a right to health care, they have a right to an education and those rights should be respected. said Russell.
The international community has made women’s right to education an important condition in the negotiations for aid and recognition of the current Taliban government.
No country has so far officially recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.