Anxious wait for Afghan girls as opening of high schools stalled

Millions of teenage girls across Afghanistan are anxiously waiting to return to the classroom, as high schools continue to remain closed, raising fears about the future of female education under Taliban rule.

The country’s new rulers allowed boys in the same age group – seven to 12 – to attend classes last month, but said that “a safe learning environment” was needed before older girls could return to school.

At that time, the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid said the group was working on a “procedure” to allow teenage girls back into the classroom.

In the Taliban’s first news conference after taking over Afghanistan on August 15, Mujahid had pledged to “allow women to work and study,” as it tried to allay fears of its rule between 1996-2001 that was marked by a curb on women’s rights.

The continued exclusion of girls from schools has only exacerbated fears among the Afghan people that the Taliban could be returning to their hardline rule of the 1990s. Those five years had the distinction of being the only time in modern Afghan history where women and girls were legally barred from education and employment.

In the month and a half since they came to power, the Taliban has told female government workers to stay at home, announced an all-male cabinet, closed down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and faced accusations of harassment and abuse of female protesters across the nation’s cities.

Dangerous questions

Toorpekai Momand, an education advocate, said the delay, coupled with the Taliban’s actions, have led adolescent girls to contend with dangerous questions, “Why do the Taliban have a problem with us? Why is it our rights that are being taken?”

Momand, who has spent 10 years working as a school administrator, is among hundreds of women in Afghanistan and abroad who are trying to ensure that the Taliban live up to their promises to allow girls and women back into schools and offices.

For many of these women, this struggle means dealing with what they see as unpopular, but necessary realities of life in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Jamila Afghani, another education advocate, said that the Afghan people are left with little but to try and engage with the Taliban, especially as the international community has refused to recognise the group.

“I didn’t bring them. You didn’t bring them, but they’re here now, so we have to keep pushing.”

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