PESHAWAR, Pakistan — On March 23, the Taliban turned away teenage girls, who had arrived excited and carrying new textbooks, from school gates across Afghanistan. Classrooms would be closed to girls from the sixth grade on, the leaders said, until an appropriate dress code could be decided on for girls and female teachers.
It was the first day schools had been set to open for girls since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August. The Ministry of Education, only two days before, had said all girls would be allowed to attend school.
Asked about the closure, Taliban spokesperson Bilal Karimi told NBC News there were “multiple issues” at play, but he did not have any details. “The leadership held its meeting recently and discussed in detail the girls schools. They, however, decided to keep the schools closed until a further meeting,” he said.
The flip-flop signals fundamental divisions within the Taliban between hard-liners and moderates over how to rule the country as the regime faces mounting international condemnation amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis.
“They’ve considered the different options available to them, they’ve dealt with internal divisions on these issues and this is the path that they seem to be choosing,” Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, told NBC News following the ban.
The decision to bar millions of girls from education has frustrated some members of the Taliban. Several Taliban leaders, who spoke with NBC News on the condition of anonymity, as they are prohibited to speak with the media, said many of their peers were not happy about depriving girls of their right to education.
“Look, more than half of our population comprises females. How can you develop your country and build institutions when you stop your females from getting education?” a senior police officer and Taliban leader asked.
“This isn’t a wise decision, as we can’t afford to annoy the Afghan people by banning girls’ education,” he said. “It should be our top responsibility to create an environment for girls to freely go to schools, colleges and universities as per the Islamic Shariah and our local customs and traditions.”
Women were barred from attending school and employment under Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, when the regime was toppled by American forces after leaders refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The Taliban had promised to respect women’s rights according to Islamic law and tradition when it retook control of the country last August.
Karimi, the Taliban spokesperson, said that schools would remain closed to girls beyond sixth grade pending further approval by the leadership but could provide no further information.
When and if this will happen remains unclear. A meeting of the council of religious scholars in the week following the ban decided to keep schools closed for girls indefinitely.
“The Ulema Council ... stated they are not against girls’ education but before sending the girls to schools, they want to create a safe environment for them in the country,” a Taliban leader, who requested anonymity out of fear of breaching the ban on speaking about official issues with reporters, said following the meeting.
The council also discussed the issue of a dress code for girls but said it considered it “a minor problem,” two Taliban leaders with direct knowledge of the meeting said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the media ban.
The school ban also signals incoherence in the Taliban’s policy toward girls’ education. Universities remain open to women, despite rumors that that could soon change. Karimi said the rumors were false.
Some Taliban leaders have also secretly sent their own daughters to private schools in Qatar, according to a report published in January by the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Wisna Sultani, a 23-year-old female student in Kabul, said the Taliban’s decision “showed that the group has no obligation to comply with the basic rights of women and Afghan citizens.”
“The world should break its silence against this obvious oppression and the explicit violation of the rights of millions of female students in Afghanistan,” she said.
But withholding aid as leverage to punish the Taliban for depriving millions of girls of their right to attend school threatens to exacerbate Afghanistan’s already dire humanitarian crisis. The education of girls has remained one of the international community’s main concerns in talks over whether to recognize the group as leaders of the country and release humanitarian aid.
“Everybody did think that the secondary schools were going to open. ... So this has thrown everything up in the air and left a lot of people struggling to think how do you engage ... with a group that behaves this way,” Barr from Human Rights Watch said.
The issue of educating girls in Afghanistan holds “some very serious consequences on people’s ability to eat and literally survive,” she continued. “This is a devastating, devastating decision for Afghans who are trying to survive and live decent lives in that country.”
Around 95 percent of Afghans are not getting enough food to eat, while 23 million are suffering from acute hunger as of March, according to the United Nations.
In a move that may further exacerbate the country’s economic woes, the Taliban last week placed a ban on cultivating opium poppies, a crop farmers had turned to for income amid the desperate food shortage.
The Taliban reversed its decision to allow teenage girls to study eight days before a United Nations conference in London on March 31, which aimed to raise $4.4 billion for humanitarian relief for Afghanistan from international donors, an appeal that surpassed drives for Syria or Yemen.
The conference raised only half of its target goal, with representatives from Germany and the U.K. taking issue with the Taliban’s last-minute school ban.
“Our potential to provide support will depend on how constructively the Taliban engage on key issues like the rights of women and girls and also ethnic and religious minorities. ... No nation can succeed if half of its population is held back,” said Liz Truss, Britain's foreign minister.
Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar and Rhoda Kwan from Taipei, Taiwan.