The Taliban have portrayed their leader's ban on secondary education for Afghan women and girls as based in religious principles, but Muslim scholars and activists say gender-based denial of education has no religious justification.
The unseen leader of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has kept mum despite growing demands from across the Muslim world to lift his ban on secondary education for Afghan girls.
Officials in the Taliban government's Ministry of Education say they stand ready to reopen schools for all girls anytime Akhundzada orders. But the reclusive Taliban leader, who carries the religious title of "Commander of the Faithful," has ignored repeated calls — even from many Afghan Islamic clerics — to reconsider his decision.
"Islam is the bearer of rights for women, including the rights to education and work," a group of clerics in Kabul said on Tuesday while calling for the reopening of secondary schools for girls. It was the clerics' second such demand in less than a month.
Prominent individual scholars have made similar calls while citing Islamic legal jurisprudence in support of education and work for women.
"There is not a single problem with females' education," said Sheikh Faqirullah Faiq, a leading Islamic scholar in Afghanistan, in an audio message last month. He said he was speaking on behalf of many other Muslim scholars.
Akhundzada, who has ultimate and undisputed power in the Taliban regime, has not given a reason or justification for his opposition to girls' education, but in his terse written decrees, which are widely circulated by Taliban officials, he has always insisted that his decisions are strictly in accordance with Islamic verses.
From the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the councils of religious scholars in several Muslim countries, a chorus of Muslim voices has opposed the ban on girls' education.
"Following the decision by the de facto government of Afghanistan to maintain an earlier ban on girls' schools, the General Secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expresses its deep disappointment over this unexpected decision," the organization tweeted on March 24.
The ban on girls' education has no Islamic justification, according to Daisy Khan, founder and executive director of Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality. "Islam places great emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge," she told VOA.
"The Taliban's recent ban on secondary education for girls is unacceptable and is clearly contrary to Islamic teachings. There is no mention in the Quran or prophetic sayings that justifies such action by the Taliban," Haroon Imtiaz, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of North America, told VOA.
The lack of response from the Taliban's top leader to such explicit repudiation of his ban stands in breach of his Islamic duties and obligations, experts say.
They say that as the head of an Islamic state, the Taliban leader must consult with and listen to his people and the wider Muslim community.
The Taliban government "must seek the counsel of those who serve the public daily — the ulema who understand the plight of their people, and civil society organizations who understand social dilemmas facing people," Khan said.
While describing it un-Islamic, some experts say the Taliban leader's opposition to girls' education might be shaped by Afghanistan's patriarchal tribal traditions.
"Unfortunately, misogynistic customs and practices — including in Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan — have continued to propel the domination of men over girls and women, with the Taliban's un-Islamic prohibition on girls' education being one manifestation," said Zainab Chaudry, a spokesperson and director of the Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nongovernmental civil rights and advocacy group in the United States.
Having some of the worst health, economic and social indicators for women in the world, Afghanistan was reported to be the worst country for women even before the Taliban's return to power.
"Cultural edicts and practices that conflict with religious obligations are not permissible in Islam," Chaudry told VOA.
Imtiaz, the spokesman for the Islamic Society of North America, said cultural restrictions that make it difficult for Muslim women to pursue work and education “are unacceptable. In a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is known to have said, 'The best of you are those who are best to your women.' In no way are we honoring and benefiting women if we place unfair restrictions on their ability to flourish."
History of defiance
Taliban leaders have a history of defying global calls to change their controversial decisions.
Despite widespread international outcry for the protection of sixth-century Buddha statues carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan, former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had the giant historic monuments destroyed in 2001, alleging it was his Islamic duty.
Like his predecessor, the current Taliban leader has virtually unlimited power within the country and is accountable to no one. As such, he alone decides the fate of the Afghan girls' secondary education and the rights of Afghan women to work.