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Taliban begins to enforce education ban, leaving Afghan women with tears and anger

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Taliban security forces fanned out to some universities and informal learning centers in Kabul on Wednesday, teachers said, enforcing an edict issued the night before that appears to have banned most females from any education beyond the sixth grade.

In one instance, a teacher reported security forces barging into his class, shouting at girls to go home. "Some of students started verbal arguments with them, but they didn't listen. My students left their classes, crying," said Waheed Hamidi, an English-language teacher at a tuition center in Kabul.

The move was expected – and dreaded – by observers as the Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Haibutullah Akhundzada imposes his vision of an Afghanistan which is ultra-conservative, even by the hardline group's standards.

"I genuinely think that the man in charge thinks that this is what an Islamic society ought to look like," says Obaidullah Baheer, a Kabul-based lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan. Speaking earlier to NPR about Akhundzada, he said, "he had this very specific view of where women or young girls should be within the society, which is within their households. So I guess for all intents and purposes, this is a gender apartheid. This is nothing short of that."

Since coming to power in August last year, the Taliban have overseen a hodgepodge of education policies. They allow girls to attend school until the sixth grade, when primary school ends. But they have prevented most girls from attending formal secondary school education, reneging on a promise to allow them back to class in March, when the scholastic year began. Some girls in distant provinces still attended high school, however, and another, unknown number were attending informal classes in tuition centers.

And in a quirk of contradictory decision-making, the former minister of higher education Abdul Baqi Haqqani allowed women to attend universities, albeit under strict conditions, including wearing face coverings and abiding by strict segregation. But in October, Haqqani was replaced with known hardliner, Nida Mohammad Nadim, who had expressed his opposition to women receiving an education. He is known to be close to Akhundzada.

The edict, issued by the Ministry of Higher Education, said women were suspended from attending public and private centers of higher education until further notice. Taliban officials have not responded to multiple request to explain the move.

Girls study at a secret school on the outskirts of Kabul in July of 2022.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
Diaa Hadid/NPR
Girls study at a secret school on the outskirts of Kabul in July of 2022.

Initially, it was believed that the ban applied to women attending universities. But on Wednesday morning, English teacher Wahidi reported Taliban security forces were turning girls away from his center. After barging into one class, they stood at the center's door and told girls to go home, he said. "They stood there for two hours," he said. "They came and warned us [that they would take] physical actions if we continue teaching English for girls."

Another woman who runs three free-of-charge tuition centers for high school-aged girls said she was waiting for Taliban education officials to rule on whether she could keep operating.

Zainab Mohammadi said one of the teachers she employs told her that another nearby center that taught girls was shut down.

"I don't sleep," said Mohammadi in broken English. "All the girls calling me and I promise I will stay for them," she said – that she would defend their interests. Then, she burst into tears.

Mohammadi said she only employed and taught women, abiding by the Taliban's strict gender segregation rules. Her students wear black robes and black face veils to and from school to ensure they do not offend patrolling Taliban forces. "They wear the hijab," she said. The follow "all the rules of Taliban."

Other women who are now effectively expelled from university, said they were too angry to cry. One student, Spogmai, told NPR in a voice message that her friend told her of the edict as she was preparing for an end-of-year exam. "I have no words," she said. "I'm feeling sad and wondering," she asked, "will I be allowed to study again? And go to university?"

The international community swiftly condemned the Taliban's move. But more than a year after the Taliban seized power, with many Afghans desperate for work, for aid, for asylum, it didn't go down so well.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who was the architect of the Taliban's return to power through an agreement struck with Washington to withdraw American and Western forces, described the move as "shocking and incomprehensible" to a Pakistani newspaper. It enraged Afghans on Twitter. It even appeared to rouse the ire of former senior diplomats.

NATO's last senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, Stefano Pontecorvo retweeted another former Afghan diplomat, Jawed Ludin, saying, "I'm shocked by how so many people are shocked. What did you all expect? Really?"

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Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.