KABUL -- The Taliban has ordered secondary girls schools in Afghanistan to shut just hours after they reopened, sending many home disappointed while angering an international community already upset about restrictions on women’s freedoms since the militants took over the country last August.
The Taliban Education Ministry had said last week that schools for all students, including girls, would open around the country on March 23 after months of restrictions on education for high-school-aged girls.
A ministry spokesman released a video on March 22 welcoming all students back to class.
On March 23, however, an Education Ministry notice said girls' schools would remain shut until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture.
"We went to school today with a lot of joy and happiness. Unfortunately, we were sent back and we were told that you cannot go to school until further notice,” Safa, a grade nine student in Kabul told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.
Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani confirmed the validity of the order.
The surprising decision is likely to disrupt efforts by the Taliban, which pledged to rule differently than during its brutal regime of the 1990s -- which saw women confined to their homes, banned most entertainment, and employed punishments that included stoning and public executions -- to win recognition from potential international donors at a time when the country is mired in a worsening humanitarian crisis.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the move “deeply damaging,” and urged the Taliban to reconsider.
"The denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls to education, it also jeopardizes the country’s future in view of the tremendous contributions by Afghan women and girls," Guterres said in a statement.
"I urge the Taliban de facto authorities to open schools for all students without any further delay."
The United States also condemned the Taliban action.
"We join millions of Afghan families today in expressing deep, deep disappointment and condemnation with the Taliban's decision not to allow women and girls to return to school above grade six," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Meanwhile, UNICEF’s South Asia Director George Laryea-Adjei conveyed his disappointment over the decision in a Twitter message, calling the reversal "a major setback."
“When I woke up this morning, I was hopeful that every girl and every boy in #Afghanistan would have the opportunity to go to school," Laryea-Adjei wrote. "I am deeply worried that girls from Grade 7 to Grade 12 cannot return to school. This news is a major setback -- for girls and their futures.”
Even before the Taliban backtracked on its announcement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) had expressed skepticism about the Taliban's determination to allow girls to go back to school.
"The Taliban’s pledge to allow all girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan to reopen on March 23, 2022, needs careful monitoring," HRW said on March 22.
“Taliban statements are often very different from Taliban actions,” said HRW's Heather Barr. “No one should believe that the Taliban has stopped blocking girls from secondary education until the evidence from the ground shows that to be the case.”
For Safa, questions over when she’ll be able to go back to school have clouded her dreams just as she allowed them back into her thoughts.
“I had a lot of hope, a lot of dreams. I wanted to achieve my dreams, I had high hopes. But unfortunately, this shattered all our hopes,” she said.
“They destroyed all our desires. They violate the rights of girls and women. If they are saying that they are Muslims, why are they violating our girls' rights? We used to wear the hijab in the past and we are Muslims, God willing, we were Muslims and we adhere to our religion. If they are Muslims, then why are they violating our rights and not administering justice?"