The Ban on Older Girls’ Education: Taleban conservatives ascendant and a leadership in disarray

The Taleban’s abrupt decision to keep girls’ secondary schools closed, despite promising for months that they would re-open, has caused distress to girls, parents and teachers alike. The Taleban’s justification was confused, with various officials giving different reasons for the closure, from lack of teachers to inappropriate school uniforms. Eventually, a formal announcement cited the need for a “comprehensive plan, in accordance with sharia and Afghan culture.” Guest author Ashley Jackson* has been looking into what happened behind the scenes that lead to this policy reversal and argues that the ultimate cause may have had less to do with religion than the unpredictable nature of Taleban power politics. 

Secondary schoolgirls arriving for class in Kabul on the first day of the new school year only to find the doors were shut to them. A last-minute reversal of policy by the Taleban meant secondary schools for girls would not be re-opening after all. Photo: Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP

We were in class, geography, for almost 30 minutes when a teacher came in and told us they’d been ordered to close the school… We asked them why, but they said the reason wasn’t clear…. Almost all the students were crying… Like everyone else, I had my new school uniform, my books, school bag and stationery – I’d even prepared materials to study for the Kankor [university entrance] exam… When I got home, my family had already heard the news…. My dear father was so sad and worried: it’s your last year, he told me, and this school closure could harm you. 

16 year old girl in Kabul, daughter of a shop-keeper and home-maker

In the past, my daughters would arrive home from school at 12 or 1 o’clock, but on that day they were back by 10. I was shocked, worried about what might have happened to them, and then they described the situation with tears in their eyes. I felt disappointed, helpless and insulted because, despite many difficulties and economic problems, I have tried to provide for my girls so that they can study and be the future of this country… They are the wealth of our Afghanistan. If they don’t study, the country will stay backward… 

Vegetable seller in Ghazni city with daughters in 7th, 10th, 12th grades (ages 12-18)

The acute grief and disappointment of older girls and their parents and teachers that girls have not been allowed to resume their studies has been all too evident. There is also fear, both for the prospects for girls under the Islamic Emirate and for what this policy means for the future of their country. The Taleban authorities speak of this as a temporary measure in place until they can put measures in place to allow schools to open, but given a plan to reopen girls’ secondary schools has been promised since the Taleban took power in August, many now do not trust that such a plan will ever be enacted. The fear that this will be an indefinite ban has led to some families now considering leaving the country, but that is not an option for the majority who are too poor to leave. “I have no plan,” the vegetable seller from Ghazni quoted above who said he cried over his girls being barred from school. “What I can do! A person in a weak economic position cannot manage to migrate.” He said his girls were now studying at home and their elders were helping them, but he thought it would be of no use; they needed a formal system and a more certain future.

Since the closure of girls’ secondary schools on 23 March, there have been a few small demonstrations (see here, in Kabul and here, in Herat), but as yet, no sign of the sort of mounting popular pressure that might influence Taleban policy on this issue. However, AAN’s recent publications looking at Taleban policy on education traced how demand for schools for boys and girls has grown and become mainstream in much of Afghan society, including among certain sections of the Taleban leadership. Closing girls’ secondary schools would seem to be an unpopular move with many Afghans, but was taken anyway. It seems important, therefore, to understand why the Taleban leadership decided to reverse policy. This is the main subject of this report. It starts with brief background on the Taleban’s policy on girls’ education since they took power in August 2021, and then explores how the Taleban’s 23 March decision came about. The report concludes by examining what might happen next. It is based on a series of interviews conducted in the aftermath of last week’s decision by the author and the AAN team. Sources included two government officials, four Afghan students and parents, six interlocutors within or close to the Taleban, and eleven diplomats and aid officials.

Background

On 23 August 2021, the Taleban’s Education Commission announced the closure of all schools following their takeover of the country. While they declared that primary schools would reopen on 28 August, they indicated that secondary schools would resume at a later date still to be determined. On 17 September, the Ministry of Education announced that “all male schoolteachers and male pupils must be present at their work” – implying, but not explicitly stating, that female teachers and students should stay at home.[1]In practice, this became a de facto ban on female secondary education. The international reaction was swift, with many Afghans, various United Nations bodies and foreign governments, condemning the decision and urging the Taleban to allow older girls to resume their schooling (see hereherehere and here.)

In fact, the Taleban’s de facto ban was not applied uniformly across the country. AAN’s analysis found that many girls’ secondary schools were allowed to keep running, either because of supportive local Taleban leadership or strong pressure by parents or teachers. Numerous private education institutions and universities also continued teaching girls, even in places where government secondary schools for girls were closed. In December 2021, Taleban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told AP that government secondary schools for girls were open in ten of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and private schools and universities were open for female students.[2]

To some extent, this reflected the Taliban’s pre-August 15 position as well as practice in the 1990s. While the Taleban government in the 1990s banned girls’ schooling, the authorities did turn a blind eye to some schooling in some places, especially for younger girls – although the threat of punishment also hung over pupils and teachers. The post-2001 insurgency, although at first opposed to all ‘modern’ schooling, eventually adopted an ambiguous stance in the face of parental demand for schools. Commanders typically allowed at least female primary education, but hardly any girls’ secondary schools operated in Taleban strongholds.[3] They neither encouraged nor banned female secondary or higher education. Instead, the insurgency’s education commission policy was worded in such a way as to leave the door open to permitting it under certain vaguely articulated conditions.[4] This ambiguity allowed the Taleban to accommodate contradictory opinions on this issue within the leadership, as well as on the ground among commanders and communities. It also enabled the Taleban to sidestep pressure during talks from diplomats and donors who wanted the movement to explicitly endorse female education, as well as potential resistance from those within the Taleban who would have objected.

Since the August 2021 closures, the Taleban government has faced enormous pressure to reinstate full female access to education. Taleban officials have made numerous statements suggesting that it would do so, provided certain requirements were met. Implicit in these statements has been an expectation of international support for the education sector. Taleban Acting Minister of Education Nurullah Munir and Deputy Minister of Education Abdul Hakim Hemat have underscored that the government does not oppose female education. They assured various diplomats and media outlets that older girls would return once they could “create a safe environment for girls” (see hereherehere and here). In January 2022, Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Zabihullah Mujahid told AP that the government “hopes to be able to open all schools for girls across the country” from the start of the new school year on 23 March 2022. At the same time, he emphasised the lack of capacity and the need for international cooperation. Again, the implicit message was that the Taleban, at least in these ministries, expected the donor community to provide funding for education.

In response, international donors have pledged to support the education sector and broader humanitarian response. On 22 January 2022, United States Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West told BBC Pashto that the US government would pay all teacher salaries if the government reopened girls’ schools. In early March 2022, the World Bank announced it had secured more than USD one billion of frozen assets in the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) to fund education, health, and other vital services. A major donor conference, co-hosted by the UK, Germany and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was announced for 31 March 2022. The summit was meant to help the UN raise USD 4.4 billion to meet urgent humanitarian needs – the largest amount that the UN has ever requested for a single country. Finally, there is also movement towards longer-term plans for support. The Education Cluster, a coordination body which includes UN agencies as well as Afghan and international NGOs, recently finalised a comprehensive framework for emergency education support over the next two years (the Afghanistan Education Sector Transitional Framework, AESTF). The AESTF has been endorsed by donors and includes a budget of USD 162 million.

None of this funding would go directly to the Taleban government. However, the payment of teacher salaries and parallel programming (implemented by NGOs and the UN) would keep the state education system running. It would also alleviate the need for the government to fund much of the education sector, and presumably free up money for other government activities. Education is a priority for the Taleban, receiving the largest share of resources after the security sector in the national budget.[5] It is now unclear how the Taleban’s decision to keep older girls out of school will affect donors’ promised funding for education, or indeed, the wider humanitarian response.

What happened 

Piecing together what happened from interviews with local sources including within and those close to the Taleban, aid workers, donors and diplomats, it appears that several factors combined to bring about the 23 March fiasco. Cabinet members and other high-level Taleban officials had gathered for a three-day summit in Kandahar on 20 March and there was speculation, reported in Etilaat-e Roz, that a cabinet shake-up was imminent or that the meeting was called to resolve internal disputes among various factions. In fact, the meeting was meant to be the culmination of several months of discussion. Consultations – and horse-trading – had already been taking place for several weeks. Among some of the key measures agreed were an order banning the old tricolour Afghan flag replacing it with the monochrome Taleban flag and the removal of Nawruz as an official Afghan holiday. Several sources described these as token measures granted to religious conservatives so that they would back more significant measures. Many expected concrete decisions to be unveiled on several key issues, including girls’ education, also cabinet and other high-level appointments, and a sense of the Taleban’s strategy to achieve recognition. Few sources inside the Taleban government said they expected the long-promised reopening of girls’ secondary schools to be in danger of reversal.

The Taleban’s decision-making has historically been generally opaque, but all the more so with regard to controversial issues. The Taleban is typically referred to as a consensus-based movement, with the Rahbari, or leadership, Shura advising the amir ul-mumenin, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who has ultimate authority as the movement’s leader. But the balance of power is more delicate than this suggests, especially when opinion within the movement is sharply divided. Much comes down to personalities and perceptions. Unlike his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, Haibatullah appears unwilling to take controversial decisions. He is widely viewed as personally opposing female education. Yet, he had been expected to act in accordance with the consensus view, which was thought to be in favour of allowing girls’ schooling. Instead, he sided with a minority who were against.

This might be a convenient narrative which lays the blame on a few unnamed ‘hardliners’ and absolves the amir. Yet there are also indications that the reversal is a symptom of the movement’s broader failure to create a clear mechanism for making national policy decisions. Exactly how the Taleban would decide the issue of female education had been debated for months. One proposed mechanism was to take the issue to the Kandahar ulema council, which already plays a key role in advising the amir. Another was to create a new national ulema council, which would then consider the issue and make a recommendation to the amir. Still another was to bring the matter to the de facto cabinet. But none of this happened, and it is not immediately clear why.

Instead, a group of ulema spoke in the Kandahar meeting against girls returning to school. It has not been possible to pin down an exact account of what occurred, but the two most credible narratives suggest a similar series of events. In one version, recounted by several Taleban and diplomatic sources, nearly two dozen influential ulema – including Chief Justice Abdul Hakim and Acting Minister of Religious Affairs Nur Muhammad Saqeb – discussed issuing a fatwa opposing the reopening of girls’ schools. It is not clear what the text of this fatwa would have been, or how they would have justified a stance which would be so contrary to the Islamic emphasis on learning. However, religious conservatives place great emphasis on the protection of female ‘modesty’, through segregation, dress and avoiding travel without a close male relative or mahram. This was also reflected in a 26 March edict to airlines from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice banning women from traveling by plane without a mahram. There is also clearly a view among some religious conservatives that when girls reach the age of puberty, they should be secluded at home until marriage (a view shared by some non-Taleban religious conservatives). For such people, the idea of marriageable girls en masse walking to school in public view, even in hijab or niqab, is deeply disturbing and provoking social unrest.

Looking back at changing Afghan attitudes to education over the last forty years (see AAN report here), the belief that non-madrassa education is ‘western’ or ‘foreign’ or bent on indoctrinating Afghan schoolchildren weaves in and out of Afghan politics. It has driven the policy of some governments and the armed resistance of some groups. Yet, steadily, that strand of belief has become less popular and less widespread. Attitudes have changed over the last forty years within the population as a whole and also, more belatedly, within the Taleban. Even so, suspicion of schooling, especially of girls and especially of older girls, has remained in some places and some communities. Such suspicion is probably most likely to be found among southern rural ulema.

In another account, also provided by several Taleban interlocutors, including a source in Kandahar, and a well-placed diplomatic source, influential members of the leadership – again including Hakim and Saqeb – spoke out against older girls returning to schools. In both versions, few others were willing to challenge the conservative opposition. The decision then appeared to be at the mercy of internal politics and personalities: because it was left so late, and because there was no organised counterforce, and because Haibatullah was unwilling to go against the conservatives or perhaps agreed with these objections, the voice of a powerful minority decided for the majority.

Yet the opposition to girls’ schooling voiced at the meeting does not appear to be solely concerned with religion or ideology. Many religious conservatives have reportedly not felt included in the Taleban’s major decisions and so, in voicing their opposition to female education, they were voicing their displeasure at the direction of the government overall. Their power to stop the Taleban from moving ahead with something that many, if not most Afghans favour and much of their own leadership is willing to allow – reportedly including all three deputies of the movement (Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Ghani Baradar, Acting Minister of Defense Mullah Yaqub and Acting Minister of Interior Serajuddin Haqqani) – illustrates the importance of a small circle of ultra-conservative clerics in shaping policy.

Several sources blame the amir. As a widely respected, conservative religious scholar and former head of the Taleban’s courts,[6] Haibatullah, they argue, should have been able to get the ulema to endorse an issue of such political importance. However, Haibatullah has also long been seen as deferential rather than decisive, and moreover, himself religiously ultra-conservative, (even by Taleban standards). It may be that Haibatullah, while not personally in favour of female education, had expected the ulema to go along with what had been public policy, communicated by the Taleban to schools, the wider Afghan public and donors. The ulema’s acquiescence would have given him political cover. But, as with much else since August, he had simply not prepared the ground, or his base, for a key governance decision. An alternate explanation is that while Haibatullah delayed his decision, the pragmatists around him tried to create one through public statements – only to find their leader had no intention of going along with it.

Caught off guard

It is hard to pin down exactly when the decision against the resumption of girls’ secondary education was taken, but it was clearly not communicated to those concerned. Ministry of Education officials, teachers and pupils all continued preparing for the resumption of girls’ schooling after the winter break on 23 March. In many places across the country, girls in higher grades and their teachers actually came to class, before being told to go home. A mother in Ghazni described her daughters purchasing uniforms, books and school supplies in anticipation of finally going back to school, only to return home in tears. “When I saw my daughters in that situation, I cried,” she said. “I’ve tried to provide things for my daughters so that they could study and be the future of this country.” Aid officials and diplomats were also caught off guard. “We were blindsided,” UNICEF’s communications chief in Afghanistan Sam Mort told AP. “All the messages, all the actions that had been taking place led us to believe that schools were opening, and as we understand it, that’s what our counterparts in the Ministry of Education believed as well.”

As late as 21 March, the Ministry of Education was insisting that “all schools for girls and boys would be open,” according to an NGO official who attended briefings with ministry officials. A Ministry of Education official stressed to the NGO official that there would be no formal announcement of girls’ secondary schools being reopened, but that this would be implied in the announcement of all schools reopening. The lack of a clear endorsement of older girls returning did raise concerns, the NGO official said, but Ministry of Education officials “were constantly reassuring us that there were absolutely no problems and everything was on track.” One source at the Ministry of Education, however, insists that he communicated to several donors and aid agency representatives that there had been not yet been a final decision on girls’ education from the leadership.

It is hard to see this coming at a worse time, ahead of the donor pledging conference scheduled for 31 March. The decision has been widely criticised by governments and international organisations (see herehere and here). The US cancelled “planned meetings” with the Taleban on the sidelines of a conference in Doha on 26 and 27 March. According to Reuters, issues for discussion included the details of a humanitarian exchange governing hundreds of millions of dollars of ARTF funding earmarked for education.

Many diplomats and analysts are now asking themselves how they miscalculated and misread the Taleban. Some (the author included) had believed that increasing numbers of girls’ schools would open and others would not. The best that could be hoped for, in this view, was that the government would continue its strategic ambiguity. This could have been interpreted by at least some donors as a sign of progress, which would allow them to justify to themselves and to tax payers continued financial support to Afghanistan. The lure of Taleban ambiguity has long allowed many to project hope onto what might otherwise feel like a situation beyond repair. The closure of girls schools have led many diplomats and donors to lose patience with Taleban interlocutors who have long promised change and failed to deliver. Some feel that this decision has confirmed their worst fears: a minority of Taleban ‘moderates’ has once again overstepped their remit and fooled the donors into believing they could – at long last – bring the religious conservatives around. There has been a clear loss of faith among the diplomatic community which may be difficult to repair. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is taking increasing funding and political attention.

Now what?

More than anything, the decision on girls’ education demonstrates that the Taleban’s leadership remains stubbornly conservative, with religious officials exerting political influence that many within the movement resent. This decision already appears to have emboldened conservatives, generating a wave of retrogressive policies, including the news on 28 March that male government employees must wear beards and ‘Islamic dress’ and a day earlier, that parks must be gender-segregated. More conservative elements may also feel they can try to block other decisions, calculating that Haibatullah is supportive, or at least unwilling to rein them in. More pragmatic officials, like those who pressed ahead on girls’ education, may now be less willing to favour certain policies for fear of being overruled.

Afghan women and girls take part in a protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul on 26 March 2022, demanding that high schools be reopened for girls. Photo by Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN/AFP

The three-day conference in Kandahar that was meant to provide a united front has only revealed the Taleban’s divisions. There is still no permanent cabinet and no real plan for working towards international recognition of the new government. The way in which the girls’ education decision was made, and the larger tensions within the movement that have been rumoured for months, underscore more fundamental issues. The failure to cultivate consensus on key issues hints at a deeper failure to communicate a clear vision and strategy to the wider Taleban movement and to the Afghan public. In other words, this is a crisis of leadership, the growing dominance of retrogressive clerics and a movement in disarray. It is a rare instance of where internal Taleban disagreements spill out into the public domain. The about-turn on policy has also stoked the flames of power struggles that will play out over the coming weeks and months. It should have been a priority to establish a clear position on an issue so important to the majority of the Afghan population, and which is seen as a yardstick of their legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world.

There are already, apparently, efforts to work on some sort of internal compromise. This would entail likely informal permission for older girls to return to classes in areas where schools had been open in the autumn. A series of incremental measures might lay the groundwork for the ‘comprehensive plan’ that the government has promised would allow older girls to return to school, through more reassurances on things like dress codes, gender segregation and transportation. This, however, is the best-case scenario.

Even in places like Mazar-e Sharif, where some girls’ secondary schools are still open, the Taleban’s decision has set students and teachers on edge. One tenth-grader in the city, with hopes of becoming a doctor, said nearly half of her classmates were staying at home and they no longer had enough teachers. She said the school principal had already introduced further dress restrictions in hopes that this would safeguard the school from Taleban closure. The larger effect the Taleban’s decision will have on demand and attitudes toward female education remains to be seen. A father in Kabul said he worried that now the schools were closed, his daughters would lose interest in studying altogether. His older daughter is still attending university, but he worries the Taleban will shut university doors to her any day now.

In such a messy situation, it is hard to see where the international leverage might lie to help turn things around. Public condemnation and punitive consequences – while fully warranted – may make things worse and risk further politicising the issue. Recriminations and ultimatums may force the leadership to retrench. The more other Islamic scholars, Afghan or foreign publicly criticise the Taleban government, the more the Taleban ulema will feel the need to justify their decision. The more donors and diplomats publicly criticise, the more female education will be seen as a foreign demand. Those inside the government trying to walk this decision back then risk being seen as capitulating to outsiders, which will ultimately make their job harder. There are few good policy options left.

Some believe that Haibatullah, and the Taleban as whole, need more time to process the enormity of their miscalculation. The argument is that they simply did not understand the impact this would have on their chance for international recognition and aid, and their standing even among other conservative Muslim countries.[7] It might be difficult to imagine just how out of touch they would have to be, to be so ignorant of the consequences – but it is entirely plausible. If this is indeed the case, then private dialogue and sustained pressure is required to engage them about the far-reaching costs of this reversal. It is also important for internationals to diversify the Taleban interlocutors that they speak to.

Even if this line of reasoning proves to be overly optimistic, there are no better alternatives. Shutting down channels of communication will cede more ground to the more conservative, less pragmatic voices in the Taleban. Outside engagement may – in some limited way, as it has in the past – help more pragmatic actors to push for change inside the movement. All of which is to say: continued dialogue may not yield much progress right now, but there simply is not much else outsiders can do at present.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to argue that donors and diplomats should exercise restraint, or that the government should not feel the full consequences of such a cruel decision. But it is ultimately Afghan citizens – not the government – who will suffer the most from international isolation, and who desperately need the world to stay engaged.

Regardless of what the Taleban ultimately decides, some Afghans girls are unlikely to give up without a fight, though such protests may be dangerous. The Taleban have responded with brutality to women protestors in recent months, but as one Afghan schoolgirl in Kabul told AAN: “Despite school closures and not letting girls go to school, I am not going to stop or surrender.” She vowed to “show them that a girl’s success is not dependent on their decisions and that they can never stop us.”

Edited by Rachel Reid and Kate Clark


* Ashley Jackson is a researcher, and author of Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations under the Taliban, Hurst & Co., 2021.

References

References
1 For a more comprehensive overview of this decision, see AAN’s analysis here.
2 Many female pupils and teachers had been bracing for more restrictions since the Taleban takeover in August, and were devastated by the ban. One student told The New York Times, “When we think about our future, we can’t see anything.” Other protested. A 15 year old girl named Sotooda Forotan, when selected to read a poem at a religious event in Herat, instead delivered a speech pleading with the Taleban officials in the audience to allow her to go back to school. A video of Forotan’s speech posted online quickly went viral, as reported by Afghan women’s media organisation Rukhshana, and local Taleban officials subsequently announced that girls’ secondary schools would reopen in Herat.
3 See the author’s previous analysis on this issue here. It is also important to stress that access to education for older girls’ was already deeply constrained before the Taleban takeover. According to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report, 66 percent of lower secondary school age girls (12 to 15 years old) were out of school and approximately 200 out of Afghanistan’s 398 districts had no higher secondary school (typically for students aged 15 and above) open to girls.
4 Two articles in the policy pertained to formal female education. Article 15 reads “All young girls who are not obliged to wear the Hijab due to their young age should be provided with Islamic education in a mosque or madrasa or at the home of a reliable scholar, so that this class will not be deprived of Islamic studies. The Provincial Education Officer shall take serious measures in this regard.” Article 16, pertaining to education beyond the primary level, states: “When the ground is prepared, the Islamic Emirate, in the light of a procedure in line with Islamic principles, Hanafi jurisprudence and Islamic Emirate’s perspectives on education, shall take action to provide women with Islamic and other required sound studies.” Quoted from Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson, Taliban attitudes and policies towards education, ODI, 2021.
5 Education occupies 17 per cent of the budget, AFN 9.5 billion ($105 million). See Ibrahim Khan, Fiscal Governance Under the Taliban: an analysis of the first Afghan national budget since the fall of the republic, 9 March 2021.
6  For a biography of Haibatullah, see AAN’s reporting here.
7 Qatar and Turkey both released statements criticising the decision (see here and here). AFP also reported that Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Qatar’s Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah Al Khater have already jointly met with Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi to request the Taleban reconsider its decision (see here).

The Ban on Older Girls’ Education: Taleban conservatives ascendant and a leadership in disarray