Taliban leader faces blowback over girls’ school ban—from his own movement

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By Saeed Shah/Wall Street Journal

Kabul, March 21: A year ago, the Taliban’s supreme leader revived the Taliban’s signature policy from the 1990s and banned girls from attending secondary school.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is discovering that it is one thing to issue a fiat, and quite another to enforce it in an Afghanistan that has changed dramatically since the Taliban last ruled. The reclusive leader is coming under intense pressure even from within his own movement to reverse it, a clash that is spilling into the open as the new school year begins this week.

On a Kabul side street one recent afternoon, around 40 girls filed discreetly into a two-room house hosting an underground school. Many arrived an hour early to socialize with other children. They are now largely confined indoors since the Taliban stormed back to power 19 months ago.

One was 13-year-old Yalda, a small girl who wore a patterned scarf around her hair and a medical mask on her face, leaving just her bright eyes visible. She spoke in rapid-fire sentences, punctuated with sharp intakes of breath.

“I want to be an engineer, a good engineer by studying my lessons,” she said in English, her favorite language.

Afghan society changed during the two decades the Taliban was out of power. Women were allowed to move more freely in cities, join the workforce and attend school. At the time of the 2022 ban, there were 1.1 million girls in secondary school, or roughly half of girls in urban areas aged 13 to 18. The Taliban has changed too. Many members traveled and lived outside the country, in places such as neighboring Pakistan, where both men and women get a formal education.

Now secret schools, often in houses, have sprouted across Afghanistan. Although some have been forced to close when discovered, and at least one teacher was briefly arrested in Kabul last month, many of them have continued to operate despite the Taliban’s tight grip on the country. 

A small minority of the Taliban are even sending their own daughters to illicit schools. Others have sent female relatives abroad to study, especially in neighboring Pakistan.

Taliban ministers have traveled repeatedly to Kandahar, where Mullah Haibatullah lives in seclusion, to press their leader in private to relent, including a testy gathering this month, said Taliban officials and foreign diplomats.

Some of their disagreement surfaced in public in recent weeks, rare for a movement whose strength is that it has been united for decades in a highly fractured country. Members of the cabinet made oblique references in speeches that were interpreted as objections to the ban on girls’ education.

“If yesterday we were harsh against the enemy, today we are soft towards our people,” Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks during the war, said in a speech in February. “It is not our aim to be a dictator and rule the people in such a way that they suffer under us.”

Following Mr. Haqqani’s speech, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that any criticism should be done in private.

That same month, the Taliban’s defense minister, Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid, made comments that were similarly seen as critical of the policy. “We should always listen to the legitimate demands of the people,” said Mullah Yaqoob, who is the son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Taliban officials deny that there are any serious splits within the group, and say that speeches have been misinterpreted.

The Taliban’s justice minister, Abdul Hakim Sharayi, who is close to the leader, acknowledged in an interview that the government’s cabinet of ministers opposed suspending girls’ education, preferring gradual changes to the education system. He said the reason for the suspension stemmed in equal measure from Afghan culture and Islamic law. He said the school curriculum needed to be cleansed of elements that didn’t reflect Islamic values.

“We are not against education,” Mr. Sharayi said. “The Americans not only invaded militarily, it was also an ideological invasion. They were trying to change our culture and morally destroy our society.”

The Taliban is a rigidly hierarchical organization, and the restrictions have been imposed from the top by Mullah Haibatullah, an ideologue who hasn’t appeared in public since the group reclaimed power. Believed to be in his 70s, he has gradually consolidated his control over the Taliban, and the edicts are a way of demonstrating his power, according to experts on the Taliban.

The education crackdowns have been followed by a succession of other restrictions on women. In December, women were barred from working for nongovernmental organizations, putting the delivery of aid at risk. Women are no longer allowed to enter public parks. The Taliban has put restrictions on their clothing and how far they can travel outside the home without a male chaperone.

But the leader’s orders haven’t been obeyed entirely. In pockets in the north of the country, girls’ high schools never closed, after refusal by the population in apparent connivance with local Taliban officials. His ban on university for women was stalled for several months by ministers before it was announced in December, Taliban officials said.

The Taliban’s intelligence service doesn’t appear fully focused on closing the secret schools, said one 25-year-old woman who has organized a number of them. At one of her schools, some apparent intelligence agents showed up, but took no further action.

At the secret school in Kabul, the girls sat on a carpeted floor, paying close attention as their teacher drew a thermometer on a whiteboard hung on the wall. She explained that numbers can be both positive and negative.

Yalda often volunteered answers to the teacher’s math questions before older girls. To limit risks, class lasts only an hour and a half a day, with all ages of high school thrown into the same lesson.

“I feel terrible that I cannot decide my future now myself,” Yalda said after class.

Their teacher, wearing a long coat with a woolen scarf around her head, was a teenager when the Taliban first took power in the 1990s and forced her out of school. Her family pushed her into an early marriage. Now her own daughter is in the class, going through the same education ban.

“If we stop teaching, learning, it is like we are dead. I want to be alive,” the teacher said, who went back to school as an adult after the Taliban’s first rule ended. “If this is a crime, I want to commit it.”

Some girls are using legal ways to learn. The Taliban hasn’t interfered with a license that the previous government granted to Radio Begum, a station based in Kabul that broadcasts to women in several provinces. After the school ban, they switched programming to include six hours of school classes a day. It trained teachers to project their voice to make compelling radio, now that visual cues like writing on the blackboard are gone. Girls can phone teachers at the station with questions afterward.

To make it feel more like a classroom, a few girls are brought into the studio to take part in the production, responding to the lessons live. Mursal, a 15-year-old girl who attended a recent radio production, said she wanted to be a doctor, but that dream is vanishing. Her younger sister, in primary school, is also losing hope. She keeps asking what will happen to her in the future. “She is scared to grow up,” Mursal said.

Girls say that they are forced to take on domestic labor at home and some are being pressured into marriage now that they are no longer in education.

The radio station has a psychologist for the girls to call. “They talk more and more about suicide,” said Hamida Aman, founder of Radio Begum.

Where there is internet access, that offers learning possibilities too. George Orwell’s “1984,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” both stories of how a totalitarian state strips away humanity, resonate with their lives in Taliban-run Afghanistan, said the teacher of one online class, Homeira Qadiri. So does Anne Frank’s diary. These books are read in translation, in PDF files passed around.

“Online teaching cannot be a replacement for school,” said Ms. Qadiri, whose own schooling was cut short in the Taliban’s first reign. “We’re just trying to teach them to survive.”

International pressure to reverse the ban is mounting, unlike in the 1990s, when the regime was isolated and didn’t have much to lose. Afghanistan now receives huge amounts of foreign aid, which continued after the Taliban’s takeover.

The U.N. is seeking $4.6 billion, its biggest fundraising appeal in the world, for emergency aid to two-thirds of the population of Afghanistan, including 21 million women and children. Last year’s appeal was only 60% funded, with the U.S. as the largest contributor.

“It is so difficult to get donors to contribute more money to Afghanistan when this is happening,” said Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief for Afghanistan, referring to gender discrimination. “This is a desperate situation. The women and girls of Afghanistan do not deserve this.”

Mullah Haibatullah, Taliban leader since 2016, has no known official residence or office in Kandahar. When the U.N.’s deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed, flew to Kandahar in January, to try to persuade him to roll back the restrictions on women and girls, she didn’t get to meet anyone more senior than the deputy provincial governor, she and Taliban officials said.

No country officially recognizes the Taliban government. But Taliban leaders crave it, meaning it might serve as a bargaining chip to get girls back to school, diplomats said.

“Recognition is one leverage that we have and we should hold on to it,” Ms. Mohammed said after her trip to Kandahar.


Photographs by Elise Blanchard


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