Taliban officials say Afghans are not ready to see girls pursue an education. But protests by the Afghan people say otherwise.
After recently opened girls' schools in an eastern province were suddenly closed again, and a top Taliban official flatly stated that Afghan elders do not back education for girls over the age of 16, citizens are openly expressing their disagreement.
In a rare display of defiance under the Taliban, schoolgirls, women, and even Afghan elders are openly demonstrating their support for girls' education in social-media posts and street protests across the country.
The effort aims to raise awareness about the discrimination faced by girls and women after a year of Taliban rule, and has highlighted the extremist group's failure to live up to its promises not to return to its brutal reign of the 1990s.
The message being sent to Afghanistan's new rulers is spelled out clearly on the placards held by the protesters: "Girls have the right to go to school and university!"; "Education for women is obligatory"; and "I want my children and grandchildren to go to school."
The issue of girls' education, which has been somewhat overshadowed by humanitarian and economic crises as Afghans transition to life under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam, returned to the forefront after a decision to reopen girls' schools in the eastern province of Paktia was suddenly reversed this week.
The schools in Paktia's Gardez and Chamkani districts were reopened in early September for girls above sixth grade on the recommendation of tribal elders and school principals, and in contrast to the restrictions imposed around most of the country since the Taliban regained power in August 2021.
But the schools were reportedly closed on September 10, leading to an outcry from rights groups and educators in Afghanistan and abroad and to immediate street protests by schoolgirls in Paktia.
The authorities were quick to note that it was not a government decision, but Taliban Education Minister Noorullah Munir added fuel to the fire when he suggested during a visit in the southern province of Uruzgan that the people were not behind the idea of education for girls.
"If you go out of the Uruzgan market and ask the elders...you will understand," Munir said on September 11 when asked by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi about his position on girls' education.
"Ask at the mosque what percentage of men with white beards and what percentage of people are willing to send their 16-year-old daughters to school, and you won't need to ask me anymore. In this regard, we are trying to create conditions so that people don't protest, and basic education can begin."
If the comments were intended to diminish the resolve of protesters, however, it did not work.
Aminullah, a father of three girls who provided only his first name, explains why he feels the Taliban's restrictions are wrong. "I don't agree with the words of the Taliban's education minister," he said. "I have three daughters who should be in the eighth, ninth, and 12th grade, but all of them have been denied an education. We are 100 percent in favor of opening schools. We want the girls to have a better future."
Social-media postings showing individual and group protests by Afghans around the country illustrate that the people's desire to see girls return to school is not isolated to Paktia.
One Twitter post showed a line of men in Kabul Province, which includes the capital, demanding that girls' schools be reopened.
In the southern city of Kandahar, a video posted to the Twitter page of Pen Path, a local NGO that campaigns for girls' education, showed Afghan men and women of all ages chanting their support for the idea.
"People want girls' schools! The people have been patient for one year. They can't be patient anymore. They want schools for their daughters and sisters," read another Pen Path post.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has taken a two-track approach to the issue, initially saying that it was unclear why girls' schools had been reopened in Paktia, and then saying that an investigation was under way to determine who closed them.
Mujahid said shortly after the reopening of the schools was announced by the head of the provincial culture and information department in Paktia that "whenever [girls'] schools are allowed to reopen, they will be opened simultaneously in all provinces."
Education was banned for girls above the sixth grade shortly after the Taliban returned to power last year, raising alarms that the new government was reintroducing restrictions against girls and women despite its pledges that it would be more moderate than it was during its first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
During that period, which ended when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime, women were prevented from working or seeking an education, were required to cover themselves from head to toe, and were not allowed to have direct contact with males other than direct relatives.
Amid international criticism over the reimposition of restrictions on girls' educations as well as restrictions on women’s appearances, freedom of movement, and right to work, the Taliban has opened the issue of educating girls for debate by a gathering of hand-picked religious scholars and vowed to take steps to reintroduce education for girls.
The Education Ministry said months ago that it sent a plan to reopen girls' schools nationwide to the Taliban leadership, but no action has been taken.
In March, the Taliban dramatically backtracked on its pledge to reopen high schools for girls. It came after repeated promises to allow all girls access to education, a key demand from the international community for any future recognition of the Taliban-led government.
In the meantime, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 3 million girls in Afghanistan are being deprived of an education.
Heather Barr, associate director for the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch, says that the closure of girls' schools in Paktia conflicts with the Taliban's promises to reopen them. "It means that the Taliban have no plans to allow girls to go to school," Barr told RFE/RL. "And with this action, a horrible and terrible future will unfold for Afghan women and girls and all Afghans in general, because a country cannot grow when half of its population is illiterate."
Matiullah Wisa, the head of Pen Path, says the decision to close the girls' schools in Paktia let down many Afghans.
"Fathers are disappointed. People are disappointed. People expect schools from the government," Wisa said. "It's an unfair decision. People are left in the dark."