A Harsh New Reality for Afghan Girls in Taliban-Run Schools

Afghanistan’s new government is likely to severely restrict education for girls and women despite the Taliban’s claims that schooling will eventually resume.

20 September 2021 | By Victor J. Blue and David Zucchino

Girls attending class at a school for girls in Kabul last week.Credit...Victor J. Blue for the New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The director of a girls’ school in Kabul desperately wants to learn details of the Taliban’s plan for girls’ education. But she can’t attend the weekly Taliban committee meetings on education. They are for men only.

“They say, ‘You should send a male representative,’” the director, Aqila, said inside the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School, which was shattered in May by a terrorist bombing that killed scores of girls.

But Aqila and other Afghan educators don’t need to attend meetings to comprehend the harsh new reality of education under Taliban rule. The emerging government has made clear that it intends to severely restrict the educational freedoms enjoyed by many women and girls the past 20 years.

The only question is just how draconian the new system will be, and what type of Islamic-based education will be imposed on both boys and girls. Just as they did when they ruled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the Taliban seem intent on ruling not strictly by decree, but by inference and intimidation.

When schools reopened Saturday for grades seven through 12, only male students were told to report for their studies. The Taliban said nothing about girls in those grades, so they stayed home, their families anxious and uncertain about their future. Both boys and girls in grades one through six have been attending schools, with students segregated by gender in the higher three grades.


A girls’ school in Kabul last week.Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

When the Taliban were in charge from 1996 to 2001, they barred women and girls from school. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled Taliban rule in late 2001, female students began attending schools and universities as opportunities blossomed. Women were able to study for careers in business and government, and in professions such as medicine and law.

By 2018, the female literacy rate in Afghanistan reached 30 percent, according to a new UNESCO report. But the Taliban swept back into Kabul and seized power on Aug. 15, and since then they have said they will impose their severe interpretation of Shariah law.

The new government has said that some form of education for girls and women will be permitted, but those parameters have not been clearly defined by Taliban officials.

The Taliban also have indicated that men will no longer be permitted to teach girls or women, exacerbating an already severe teacher shortage. This, combined with constraints in paying teachers’ salaries and the cutoff of international aid, could have “immediate and serious” outcomes for education in Afghanistan, the UNESCO report warned.

Female students will be required to wear an “Islamic hijab,” but with the definition left open to interpretation. At a pro-Taliban women’s gathering last week, many women wore niqabs, a garment that covers a woman’s hair, nose and mouth, leaving only the eyes exposed.

A student drawing during an art lesson at a girls school in Kabul last week.Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times


“We are working on a mechanism to provide transportation and other facilities that are required for a safer and better educational environment,” Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman and the acting deputy minister of information and culture, said Monday, adding that classes for girls in grades seven and above would resume soon.

“There are countries in the region that have committed to help us in our education sector,” he said. “This will help us in providing better education to everyone.”

While many girls and women in Kabul have embraced Western standards of women’s rights and opportunities, Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative society. In the countryside, even if all women do not necessarily welcome Taliban rule, many are accustomed to customs that kept them at home to cook, clean and raise children even before the Taliban took power in the 1990s.

The acting minister of higher education last week said that women could continue to study in universities and graduate programs, as long they were in gender-segregated classrooms, but on Friday, the new government sent an ominous signal of its intentions. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs compound was converted into offices for the religious morality police, who brutally enforced the militants’ interpretation of Shariah law two decades ago. The building now houses the Ministry of Invitation, Guidance and Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Female teachers, administrators and students have been bracing for austere new restrictions. Many say they have begun wearing niqabs and preparing classrooms to accommodate classes strictly segregated by gender. (Many schools also taught boys-only and girls-only classes under the U.S.-backed government.)