Taliban pledge to open all schools for girls soon

Promise to allow pupils to return after the Afghan New Year in late March

Afghan women and activists hold a banner and demand for food, jobs, and education for girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 12, 2022. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers say they hope to be able to open all schools for girls across the country after late March.

Their spokesman offered the first timeline for addressing a key demand of the international community in an interview with AP on Saturday.

Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, girls in most of Afghanistan have not been allowed back to school beyond seventh grade.

It is feared they could impose similar harsh measures as during their previous rule 20 years ago, when women were banned from education, work and public life.

Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 15, 2022. AP

Zabihullah Mujahid, who is also the Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and information, said their education departments were looking to open classrooms for all girls and women following the Afghan New Year on March 21. Afghanistan, like neighbouring Iran, observers the Islamic solar Hijri Shamsi calendar.

Education for girls and women “is a question of capacity”, Mr Mujahid said.

Girls and boys must be completely segregated in schools, he said. The biggest obstacle so far had been finding or building enough dormitories, 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 are not against education,” Mr Mujahid said.

The Taliban dictates so far have been erratic, varying from province to province. Girls have not been allowed back to classrooms in state-run schools beyond Grade 7, except in about 10 of the country’s 34 provinces. In the capital, Kabul, private universities and high schools have continued to operate uninterrupted. Most are small and the classes have always been segregated.

“We are trying to solve these problems by the coming year,” Mr Mujahid said.

Afghan educators and activists were skeptical of the Taliban's commitment to opening schools to girls, however.

"Based on my previous experience during their last regime in the late 1990s – they kept promising to reopen schools and universities for women for the entire five years they controlled the country, but never did," said one university lecturer from Kabul, who did not want to be named to protect her identity.

"This time, too, I don’t trust the Taliban to hold true to their promise even a little bit.

"We must not forget that they are an extremist group pretending to be a civilised group to seek the approval of the international community," she told The National.

The Taliban's claims that the reason the reopening of schools to girls has been delayed is due to difficulty bringing in gender segregation and hijab rules is a "ruse," she added.

Meanwhile, Afghan activists say girls in the country are desperate to get back to school.

Zarlasht Wali, an activist from Kandahar who focuses on education, said: "I have seen the passion my people have towards education.

"I know how girls are thirsty for their school, even in remote areas, and how frustrated young girls are over the uncertainty of their future."

The international community has been similarly sceptical of Taliban announcements, saying it will judge them by their actions, even as it scrambles to provide billions of dollars to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that the UN chief this week warned could endanger the lives of millions.

With a breakdown of services and only sporadic electricity in the bitterly cold Afghan winters, most people rely on firewood and coal for heat. Among the hardest hit are more than three million Afghans who live as refugees within their own country, having fled their homes because of war, drought, poverty or fear of the Taliban.

Earlier this month, the UN launched a $5 billion appeal for Afghanistan, the single largest appeal for one country.

Washington has spent $145 billion on reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. Yet even before the Taliban recaptured the country, the poverty rate was 54 per cent.

Mr Mujahid appealed for economic co-operation, trade and “stronger diplomatic relations”. So far, neither Afghanistan’s neighbours nor the UN seem ready to grant formal recognition that would help open up the Afghan economy.

However UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for greater economic development, saying it is critical to rapidly inject liquidity into the Afghan economy “and avoid a meltdown that would lead to poverty, hunger and destitution for millions.”

The international community has called for a more representative government that includes women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. While all members of the new Taliban Cabinet are men and most are Taliban members, Mr Mujahid said there were exceptions such as the deputy finance minister and officials in the economics ministry who were in the previous, US-backed administration.

Mr Mujahid also said 80 per cent of civil servants who had returned to work were employees under the previous administration. He said women were working in the health and education sectors and at Kabul International Airport in customs and passport control. He did not say if or when women would be allowed to return to work in government ministries.

He said most of the new government’s revenue would be raised from customs revenue that the Taliban will collect at border crossings with Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian nations to the north. He said the Taliban had brought in more revenue in their first four months in power than the previous government in over a year.

He appealed to Afghans who have fled to return to their homeland. Since the takeover, there have been cases of opponents arrested, journalists beaten, rights workers threatened and demonstrations by women dispersed by heavily armed Taliban troops firing in the air.

Mr Mujahid acknowledged incidents of Taliban members harassing Afghan civilians, including humiliating young men and forcibly cutting their hair.

“Such crimes happen, but it is not the policy of our government,” he said. Those responsible for such incidents were arrested, he said.

“This is our message. We have no dispute with anyone and we don’t want anyone to remain in opposition or away from their country,” he said.

Ruchi Kumar contributed to this report

Updated: January 16, 2022, 5:55 PM