KABUL, March 23 (Reuters) – The Taliban on Wednesday backtracked on its announcement that secondary schools would open for girls, saying they would remain closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law for them to reopen.
The U-turn caught many by surprise, leaving students in tears and drawing condemnation from humanitarian agencies, human rights groups and diplomats at a time when the Taliban administration seeks international recognition.
Teachers and students from three secondary schools in the capital Kabul said the girls excitedly returned to campus Wednesday morning but were ordered to go home. They said that many students left crying.
“We all got desperate when the principal told us, she was crying too,” said a student, whose name was not used for security reasons.
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, they banned female education and most jobs.
The international community has made girls’ education a key demand for any future recognition of the Taliban administration, which took over the country in August when foreign forces withdrew.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the Taliban’s decision was “deep disappointment and profound damage to Afghanistan.”
“The denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls to education,” Guterres said in a statement. “I urge the de facto Taliban authorities to open schools for all students without further delay.”
The Education Ministry had announced last week that schools for all students, including girls, would open across the country on Wednesday after months of restrictions on the education of girls of secondary school age.
On Tuesday night, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education posted a video congratulating all the students on their return to school.
However, on Wednesday, an education ministry notice said girls’ schools would be closed until a plan was drawn up in line with Islamic law and Afghan culture, according to Bakhtar News, a government news agency.
Suhail Shaheen, a senior Taliban member based in Doha, said the postponement of the opening of girls’ schools was due to a technical problem and that the Education Ministry was working on standardized uniforms for students across the country.
“We hope that the uniform issue will be resolved and finalized as soon as possible,” he said.
Khadija, 16, went to school on Wednesday and stayed up all night excited after seven months at home. But just minutes after lining up with her classmates for a welcome speech, the school’s assistant manager walked up to the students, crying, and broke the news that they had to leave.
“We couldn’t believe we were facing such conditions… it was like a day of mourning. Everyone was crying and hugging each other,” he said.
Returning home, she took the books out of her bag and tried to imagine how she could stay motivated by teaching the younger children in her neighborhood to help her remember her lessons. Still, she said her disappointment was hard to get over.
“I would like to be a doctor in the future, but for now I have no hope, I am like a corpse,” he said.
Local media broadcast images of girls holding a protest in Kabul.
Many in the international community condemned the decision and the UN special envoy for Afghanistan formally conveyed the organization’s “grave concern and disappointment” to Taliban officials, according to a UN statement.
The Taliban seek to run the country in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic law and, at the same time, access billions of dollars in desperately needed aid to avoid widespread poverty.
“For the sake of the future of the country and its relations with the international community, I would urge the Taliban to honor their commitments to their people,” US special envoy for Afghanistan Tom West said in a tweet.
Reporting from Kabul Newsroom and Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by Gibran Peshimam and Michelle Nichols in New York; Edited by Michael Perry, Alexandra Hudson, and Jonathan Oatis
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