Afghan government backtracks over ban on schoolgirls singing in public

Critics campaigned forAfghan government to reverse decision

epa09061888 Afghan women read a book at a library, during International Women's Day in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 08 March 2021. International Women's Day is globally observed on 08 March to highlight the struggles of women around the globe. It was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as the day for women's rights and world peace in 1977.  EPA/M SADIQ
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Afghanistan's government backtracked on an attempt to ban schoolgirls over the age of 12 from reciting poems or singing at public events after a public outcry and criticism from cultural figures and human rights campaigners.

Days after critics said a directive sent to schools in Kabul, the capital, marked a backwards step on girls' rights, the Ministry of Education said it was committed to allowing all pupils – boys and girls - to take part in cultural and sporting activities.

It said the memo had been issued by the head of Kabul's education directorate and "does not reflect the policy of the Ministry of Education".

"The Ministry of Education is addressing the issue and afterwards the evaluation of the findings will be shared with citizens," the ministry said in a statement on March 13.

Last week's memo came as the government negotiates a power-sharing deal with the Taliban and critics said it recalled rules imposed by the extremist group that banned girls from school.

The ministry originally defended the measure on the grounds that parents had asked for their daughters to be excluded from public performances and said some pupils had complained that such commitments hindered their studies.

The memo said girl pupils aged 12 and over would be permitted to read poetry or sing only at all-female gatherings.

Under the Taliban, singing was banned in public, but since the end of the group's rule in 2001, groups of girls and boys revived the tradition of reciting well-known poems and singing anthems at school events or on national days.

The country's independent human rights commission, which was among the organisations that spoke out against the ministry's directive, said public pressure had prompted the about-face.

"The protests from various quarters forced the Ministry of Education to reconsider its decision, but questions and concerns remain in regard to human rights, particularly women and children's rights," said spokesman Zabihullah Farhang.

"We are especially concerned about human rights in regard to the ongoing peace process [with the Taliban]," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Among the well-known cultural figures who criticised the ban was Ahmad Sarmast, founding director of the country's national music institute, who launched the #IAmMySong social media protest campaign.

He urged the campaign's supporters to stay alert until the ministry issued a new decree officially reversing the ban.

"We should not rest until [the] needed decree is issued. Back to action in full force," Mr Sarmast, who also established a national women's orchestra, tweeted on Monday.

The effort to restrict schoolgirls' cultural activities comes amid increasing violence in Afghanistan, mainly assassinations of rights defenders, journalists and civilian government employees – many of them women.

Foreign donors poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan in the past two decades to help create a more open and equal society, and the ministry's move sparked international concern.

A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office said last week it was "seeking clarification from the Afghan Ministry of Education on these reports and any potential implications for UK-funded education work".