In November 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Unicef, the UN children's fund, warned that prolonged school closures and other disruptions to daily life put "the future of an entire generation at risk". The rest of the world's children are back at school, with the exception of schoolgirls in Afghanistan, whose futures are put at risk not by a global pandemic, but by the parochialism of their new leaders at home.
Afghan secondary school girls were promised a return to education on Wednesday, after 187 days of being barred from the classroom while the Taliban militant group ruling Afghanistan deliberated over how best to restart female education in line with their extremist religious views. On Wednesday morning, however, thousands of girls across the country turned up on time only to find their lessons interrupted by Taliban members informing them the decision had been reversed.
The official reason for the reversal, according to state-run Bakhtar News Agency, is that school uniforms were found not to be in compliance with Sharia. This is unlikely; Afghan schoolgirls' uniforms have not changed in decades, and Taliban leaders had more than six months to weigh them up against the relevant sources of religious law.
Fuelled by the sense of incredulity, other, more conspiratorial explanations abound. Weeda Mehran, a lecturer on Afghanistan at Exeter University in the UK, has said that girls' education is being used as leverage for concessions from the international community. The notion that the Taliban, who took power after a 20-year struggle only to find themselves deprived of international recognition and access to Afghanistan's state coffers, would engage in such underhanded tactics is certainly plausible. But the extraordinary clumsiness with which the group has handled the issue of girls' schooling suggests they are not so shrewd.
As recently as Monday, the Taliban's official communications channels had hyped the return of girls' education as proof that the group could make good on their word. The sudden about-face will harm its domestic credibility more than it will enhance any bargaining position for international concessions. While many Afghan families, particularly in the rural areas of the country that form the Taliban's political base, do not want to send their girls to school, the countless videos being shared of girls crying at the news will deepen resentment of the militant group's nascent government in Afghanistan's large cities.
A more credible explanation for this week's events is that the Taliban are still struggling with deep divisions within their own ranks. Waheedullah Hashimi, a former Taliban commander who now works in donor relations for the group, said in remarks to AP that the rural-urban divide is a core part of the problem, and that the Taliban's dithering is a product of their desire – and apparent inability – to roll out a unified policy that works across the country. It seems some in the Taliban thought such a policy was ready, and other, more conservative voices had last-minute reservations.
The consequences of this lack of coherence and political unity within the Taliban government are proving to be catastrophic. Afghan students already lag far behind their regional peers, and gender-based discrimination in education will create a gap within a gap that will take years to reverse. There is very small consolation in the fact that a return to girls' education was ever announced at all, for it shows that there are some within the Taliban who recognise that it is necessary, for one reason or another. If girls are to be allowed back into the classroom for good, those voices must prevail.