The schools were supposed to reopen this week, and the reversal could threaten aid because international officials had made girls’ education a condition for greater assistance.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban on Wednesday abruptly reversed their decision to allow girls’ high schools to reopen this week, saying that they would remain closed until officials draw up a plan for them to reopen in accordance with Islamic law.
The move is likely to deal a significant blow to the credibility the Taliban had been trying to build with international donors in recent months. And it could threaten the billions of dollars of humanitarian aid that have helped keep millions of Afghans from famine as the country grapples with a devastating economic collapse.
The news was crushing to the over one million high school-aged girls who had been raised in an era of opportunity for women before the Taliban seized power in August last year — and who had woken up thrilled to be returning to classes on Wednesday.
One 12th-grade student in Kabul said the decision had stamped out her last bit of hope that she could achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer.
“Education was the only way to give us some hope in these times of despair, and it was the only right we hoped for, and it has been taken away,” the student, Zahra Rohani, 15, said.
On Monday, the Ministry of Education had announced that all schools, including girls’ high schools, would reopen on Wednesday at the start of the spring semester. The following day, a Ministry of Education spokesman released a video congratulating all students on the return to class.
Across the capital, Kabul, many girls had arrived at high schools on Wednesday morning excited to return to the campuses, and some schools did open, at least briefly. But as news spread that the Taliban had reversed their decision, many left in tears.
Mehrin Ekhtiari, a 15-year-old student in 10th grade, said she and her classmates were shocked when a teacher announced the news to the classroom on Wednesday morning.
“My hope was revived after eight months of waiting,” she said, adding later that the announcement had “dashed all my dreams.”
In recent months, the international community has made girls’ education a central condition of foreign aid and any future recognition of the Taliban. Under the Taliban’s first rule, from 1996 to 2001, the group barred women and girls from school and most employment.
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Aziz-ur-Rahman Rayan, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education, said in a phone interview that Taliban officials had decided on Tuesday not to allow girls above the sixth grade to return to school yet. He attributed the decision to a lack of a religious uniform for girls and the lack of female teachers for girls, among other issues.
At an hourslong news conference at the Ministry of Education on Wednesday morning to note the start of the spring semester, Taliban officials did not mention the last-minute reversal and did not take questions from journalists present about girls’ high schools.
Many principals and teachers said they only received the new instructions from the ministry after students had already arrived for classes Wednesday.
The move came a little more than a week before a pledging conference where the United Nations had hoped donor countries would commit millions of dollars in badly needed aid, as Afghanistan grapples with an economic collapse that has left over half of the population without sufficient food to eat. It is unclear whether donors will be willing to contribute following the Taliban’s abrupt reversal on the key commitment of girl’s education.
“It creates a lot of challenges in terms of how is the world going to engage with them and try to stop Afghans from starving when there’s no space to negotiate and convince the Taliban to shave off even the sharpest edges of their rights abuses,” said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
The United Nations and the United States condemned the decision on Wednesday.
“I’m deeply troubled by multiple reports that the Taliban are not allowing girls above grade 6 to return to school,” tweeted Ian McCary, the chief of mission for U.S. Embassy Kabul, currently operating out of Doha, Qatar. “This is very disappointing & contradicts many Taliban assurances & statements.”
Many Afghan girls had waited for months to hear whether they would be allowed to return to school, after the Taliban seized control of the country. When schools reopened in September for grades seven through 12, Taliban officials told only male students to report for their studies, saying that girls would be allowed to return after security improved and enough female teachers could be found to keep classes fully segregated by sex.
Later, Taliban officials insisted that Afghan girls and women would be able to go back to school in March, and many Western officials seized on that promise as a deadline that would have repercussions for the Taliban’s efforts to eventually secure international recognition and the lifting of at least some sanctions.
In recent months, the Taliban had also come under mounting pressure to permit girls to attend high school from international donors, aid from which has helped keep Afghanistan from plunging further into a humanitarian catastrophe set off by the collapse of the former government and Western sanctions that crippled the country’s banking system.
At one girls’ private high school in Kabul, more female students had arrived for classes Wednesday morning compared to previous years, the school’s principal said in an interview. But the excitement that had filled the hallways early was soon replaced with a sense of devastating disappointment when they learned that the school would have to close.
“They came to my office, crying,” said the principal, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of Taliban retribution.
The decision “doesn’t make sense at all, and it has no logic,” the principal added, noting that the new government has had over seven months to design a new uniform and address the teacher shortage.
But even as girls’ high schools sent students away in Kabul, they were able to return to classes for the start of the spring semester in at least two northern cities, Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif, according to teachers and education officials there.
That geographic discrepancy is indicative of the new government’s largely erratic policymaking and its struggle to adopt a uniform, nationwide approach to key issues.
As an insurgency over the past two decades, the Taliban operated on a decentralized basis with local leaders empowered to make independent decisions in their provinces. Since seizing power, the Taliban have been reckoning with the need for consistent policies while struggling to tread a delicate line that satisfies their more moderate members, their hard-line base and the international community.
For months, Taliban delegations have been meeting with E.U., U.N. and American officials, appealing for funding and recognition. So far, no country has recognized the Taliban’s government, and many donors remain skeptical of its promises to meet human rights obligations.
The sudden reversal on the girls’ secondary schools seemed to validate existing concerns among Western donors that, despite assurances, they are dealing with much the same Taliban as the 1990s.
It is also the latest sign that increasingly the group’s ideological views are taking precedence over international engagement, according to Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant.
“The Taliban have been solidifying their position and becoming hard-line on a lot of issues,” Mr. Bahiss said.
In recent months, the new government has issued restrictions on local media and cracked down on peaceful protests. Taliban officials have also issued new restrictions on women, including a ban on traveling farther than 45 miles in a taxi unless they are accompanied by a male chaperone.
If the Taliban continue to restrict women’s movement, the policies could effectively confine women to their homes, advocates say — a move reminiscent of the group’s repressive rule in the 1990s.
“You can’t exercise your other rights if you can’t leave your house to attend your job or attend education classes,” Ms. Barr said. “It’s a really alarming sign of what may be to come, it’s likely to herald further crackdowns on women.”
Safiullah Padshah reported from Kabul and Christina Goldbaum from Dubai. Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Houston and Sharif Hassan contributed reporting from Mexico City.