Dozens of Afghan women, including students, teachers, parents and civil society activists, demonstrated in Kabul Saturday against the Taliban’s decision to keep schools shuttered for teenage girls.
The protesters were carrying books and chanting, “Open the schools! Justice, justice,” as they marched through the streets of the capital of Afghanistan. “Education is our fundamental right, not a political plan,” read banners held by rally participants.
The Islamist Taliban reopened secondary schools after the winter break on March 23, which also marks the start of the school year for most Afghan provinces.
But the hardline group abruptly reneged on its decision to allow girls above the sixth grade to return to the classroom, citing a lack of arrangements for them, including school uniforms, in accordance with Sharia or Islamic law.
Secondary schools for girls across most of Afghanistan have been closed since August when the Taliban seized power from the now-defunct Western-backed Afghan government.
The move swiftly drew international condemnation of the Taliban for backtracking on their commitment that all Afghan girls around the country would be allowed to resume their education.
The United States condemned the Taliban for reneging on the commitment and called off planned talks with the Islamist group that were to be hosted by Doha, the capital of Qatar.
“We have canceled some of our engagements, including planned meetings in Doha around the Doha Forum, and have made clear that we see this decision as a potential turning point in our engagement," State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters Friday in Washington.
"This decision by the Taliban, if it is not swiftly reversed, will profoundly harm the Afghan people, the country's prospects for economic growth, and the Taliban's ambition to improve their relations with the international community," Porter said.
The U.S. and other Western donor countries have made girls’ education a key demand before directly engaging with the Taliban or even considering whether to grant recognition to their interim government in Kabul.
In a joint statement Thursday, the foreign ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Norway, the United States, and the European Union, said the Taliban's decision will harm the group's prospects for legitimacy.
The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issued a statement about the Taliban’s decision, expressing “deep disappointment” and “deep frustration.”
“Afghan people, boys and girls, need to see their fundamental rights, including but not limited to education, fully respected in a bid to ensure that Afghanistan wades its way toward stability and economic prosperity,” the OIC said in its statement.
When the Taliban returned to power, they promised a softer rule compared with their first regime from 1996 to 2001, which became notorious for banning women from education and work among other human rights abuses.
The Taliban have recently reopened universities to all male and female students under a newly introduced gender-segregated system in line with their strict interpretation of Islam, making it compulsory for women to wear hijabs.
The Taliban have rolled back nearly 20 years of gains made by the women in Afghanistan, barring most of them from returning to government duties and ordering them not to undertake long road trips unless accompanied by a close male relative.
Some female Afghan activists initially pushed back against the curbs and held small protests, but the Taliban rounded up the leaders of those rallies and detained them for weeks before setting them free under international pressure. Taliban officials, however, denied security forces had detained the activists.