Hypocrisy or a reason for hope? The Taliban who send their girls to school

Show caption Afghan girls read the Quran in a mosque outside Kabul. Quran study is the only education available to them following the closure of public schools. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Afghanistan Hypocrisy or a reason for hope? The Taliban who send their girls to school The Afghan rulers’ ban on female schooling has provoked global anger, but opposition is also growing from within Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul Sun 14 Aug 2022 10.00 BST Share on Facebook

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The Taliban official’s wife apologised for keeping her visit brief. She needed to get her teenage girls ready to fly to Doha, the Qatari capital, where they would shortly be starting a new term, she explained to her host earlier this year.

In Kabul, and across much of Afghanistan, girls have not been legally able to attend high school for nearly a year, because of a Taliban ban. Officials insist the ruling is only temporary, but have set no conditions or timeline for lifting it.

The ban triggered a wave of depression and anger inside Afghanistan, and widespread revulsion beyond its borders. It also caused less immediately visible splits within the movement itself, reflecting deeper fractures among former insurgents struggling to adjust to running a government.

It is an open secret that several senior figures in the leadership educated their own daughters while living outside Afghanistan – mostly in Pakistan or Qatar – during their 20-year fight against US forces and their Afghan allies.

Some have continued doing so secretly, even after moving back to Kabul, including the family whose international schooling plans were shared with the Observer.

Less elite members of the movement have been looking for options closer to home. One secret school for girls in the capital has enrolled the daughters of four or five Taliban families for classes in grades seven to 12, a senior staff member said.

One Talib official came to ask personally for a larger-than-usual discount, and teachers told him about the others, he said. “I was scared and also happy that he and the others are in some way invested in the other children in the school now, and will be defending and supporting us.”

In the private commitment of some Taliban members to securing an education for their own girls at any cost, other Afghans see both hypocrisy and some hope for change. It is likely to be a long fight, however, because opposition to women’s schooling comes from the very top of the Taliban movement.

Several Afghans with knowledge of the Taliban leadership, both inside and outside the movement, described the decision to bar girls from school as coming straight from the supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, and his inner circle.

Haibatullah, or his close allies, ordered one of the cruellest moments of the last year, they said, when high school girls who had been summoned in March to restart class were ordered home again soon after turning up for the first day of classes.

Taliban fighters fire into the air to disperse women protesting against the ban in Kabul. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

“This is the stance of a minority, who are in a very strong position,” said one well-connected Afghan source.

Diplomats and Afghans with leadership ties said the ministry of education had been genuinely planning to get girls back into schools, with preparations including checks that facilities met Taliban standards for segregated classes. The ministry was blindsided by the last-minute ruling from Kandahar, where Haibatullah is based.

“Two eminent [figures in the movement] said ‘the Taliban have been taken hostage’,” the Afghan source with leadership ties said.

He described a gathering of thousands of clerics, organised last month, as an attempt by other frustrated Taliban factions to out-maneouvre the leadership and claim legitimacy for girls’ education.

That plan was thwarted when Haibatullah came to Kabul for the first time, to address the meeting, in a speech that pointedly side-stepped the question of girls’ education.

Despite taboos on criticising the leadership, after decades of emphasising unity on the battlefield, a handful of senior Taliban figures have spoken out against the ban.

In May the deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, directly attacked the prohibition of girls’ education in a televised speech defending the rights of “half the population of Afghanistan”.

Taliban cleric Rahimullah Haqqani, who was killed last week by an Islamic State suicide bomber, had previously told the BBC that Afghan women and girls should be able to access education: “There is no justification in the sharia [law] to say female education is not allowed. No justification at all.

“All the religious books have stated female education is permissible and obligatory, because, for example, if a woman gets sick, in an Islamic environment like Afghanistan or Pakistan, and needs treatment, it’s much better if she’s treated by a female doctor.”

Rahimullah Haqqani had previously said Afghan women and girls should be able to access education. Photograph: Handout

In June the central government launched a bloody response to an uprising by a rebel Taliban commander in Balkhab district, in northern Sar-e-pol province. The conflict had complex roots, but sources told the Observer that before leader Mawlawi Mehdi lost his government job, he too had defended girls’ education.

And because the ban is officially only temporary, and the Taliban has always said it supports the principle of women’s right to education, some officials with younger daughters are willing to be open about their own attitude towards schooling.

Maulawi Ahmed Taqi, a spokesperson for the ministry of higher education, highlighted efforts to adapt universities so women could study while meeting Taliban requirements for strict gender segregation, as a sign of the group’s commitment to women’s education.

“I have daughters and of course I want my girls to be educated in religious madrassas as well as getting a modern education,” he said.

They are currently in primary school, but he is confident they will be able to continue classes as they get older, he added.

“I am optimistic the schools won’t be closed for ever”