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Afghans who want teen girls back in school have new allies: Taliban-affiliated clerics

Afghan girls and women and girls protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul on March 26, 2022, demanding that high schools be reopened for girls.
Ahmad Sahel Arman
AFP via Getty Images
Afghan girls and women and girls protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul on March 26, 2022, demanding that high schools be reopened for girls.

KABUL, Afghanistan – Girls have pretty much been unable to attend secondary school in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power nine months ago. Public protests – with demonstrators shouting "We are sick of captivity!" – have been shut down by the Taliban.

But now the supporters of secondary education for girls have unexpected new allies: Muslim clerics, including those sympathetic to the Taliban.

"Clerics are coming out and issuing statements and saying girls' education is a right," says Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. "They're trying to convince the hardliners that this decision is detrimental."

The secondary education for girls that many of the clerics advocate is not the Western-style education that more progressive Afghans would hope for. The clerics emphasize strict segregation and the importance of girls studying so they can be better mothers — which, they presume, is the chief role for women.

And if the Taliban do ultimately allow girls to attend secondary school girls, they are likely to forced to don a face veil and will be carefully watched by teachers appointed by local Taliban officials to ensure they strictly adhere to their restrictive uniforms.

That has been the case in some secondary schools in the northern province of Balkh, according to a statement by Human Rights Watch. It is one of the few provinces where Afghan girls do go to secondary school, owing in part to strong pressure by parents and local leaders to keep girls' schools open.

Those supporting girls education appear to include the powerful interior minister and Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Ministry of Higher Education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, and Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban, says Bahiss. They also include cleric Jalilullah Akhundzada, head of the Dar al-Uloom seminary in the western Afghan city of Herat, who issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, in support of girls' education in March.

Akhunzada was not available to speak to NPR, but his son, known as Mualana Muhibullah, said his father's fatwa was an "expression of truth and reality which needed to be told," he said.

"Girls and women should have the right to educate and be educated, but by preserving the conditions needed for a Muslim girl," he said, referring to strict gender segregation and conservative clothes. "If a woman is educated, she can raise better children and build a better society."

Muhibullah said the fatwa came after a gathering in Kandahar with the Taliban's leader Haibatullah Akhundzada in March. Officials had just announced that girls would be allowed back into secondary school.

But the change in policy did not happen. Bahiss says powerful hardline clerics demanded the ban be extended, including Afghanistan's chief justice Abdul Hakim Haqqani. For hardliners, just the idea of teenage girls leaving their homes was unacceptable.

Afghan girls only learnt of the Taliban's backtrack when they arrived to class on March 23, the day they were told to turn up. One teacher, who requested anonymity to avoid offending her Taliban employers, recalled the scene: "We told them they had to leave. The girls were crying. They pleaded: we are ready to wear burkas but please let us stay."

Images of girls sobbing in their uniforms before their school gates were broadcast around the world, which suggested to non-Muslims that the Taliban's decision not to reopen secondary schools for girls was because Islam was against women. Muhibullah says his father wanted to counter that perception.

He says his father finally took action after the Herat governor asked him to issue a fatwa on the necessity to educate girls – so he could send it to the Taliban leader. He wasn't the only religious figure to speak out. Clerics from across Afghanistan, from Kabul, to the northern province of Balkh, to the southern province of Paktia, and from neighboring Pakistan, have written letters and held sessions requesting the Taliban reopen schools for girls.

The highest profile pushback so far has come from a Pakistani cleric, Muhammad Taqi Usmani, one of the Muslim world's most influential religious scholars.

In a letter leaked to the media in mid-April, he bemoaned that "enemies have turned into a tool of propaganda" the ban on girls' secondary school. He urged the Taliban "to dispel this impression that Islam or the Islamic Emirates [Taliban] is against women."

The clerics are a lot harder to ignore than feminists, scholars or girls, and it's embarrassing for the Taliban to be chastised by so many scholars, says Bahiss. That seems to be undoing the claim of the hardliners that they are in majority when it comes to their decision to reverse the education."

There's also resentment within the Taliban itself.

At a gathering of senior Taliban bureaucrats for a Ramadan evening meal, they said extending the ban had compromised their credibility. An NPR reporter attended as a guest and did not have permission to directly quote the men, who complained that Afghans thought the Taliban government were out of touch with how Afghanistan has changed after two decades of Western-backed rule.

And the Taliban are now ruling a very different Afghanistan, says Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International's South Asia Campaigner and an Afghan woman. "There is a huge awareness on the importance of girls education."

She says perhaps one reason why Afghans are largely uniting around the demand to send girls to secondary school is that just about every family has a school-age daughter or knows such a family. "They all have teenage girls," Hamidi says. "And they are all traumatized right now," because they have been denied schooling – and so, a future. "Even if you don't have a teenage girl in your house, if you have a daughter of a younger age," she says, "if this issue is not going to be resolved, there is no future for these girls."

As the debate rages on, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, Aziz Ahmad Ryan, says they're waiting for the green light from the Taliban to bring teen girls back to school. "Whenever the leadership of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] decides, the education ministry is ready to open girls' schools from 7 grade to 12th grade on that day all over Afghanistan."

In some ways, Bahiss said, the fight over girls education is shorthand for a broader tussle between the Taliban's hardliners and – relative – moderates for power within the movement. "This became a battleground," he says.

And it's unclear who will win. "Generally when there's public pressure, the Taliban seem to double down on their decisions. But this time the big difference is this [pushback] is led by the Taliban," he says of the clerics affiliated to the movement. It's unprecedented he says, "and it would be interesting to see if this method is effective in forcing the hardliners to cave in."

Fazelminallah Qaziziai, who reported from Kabul, is NPR's Afghanistan producer. Hadid reported from Islamabad.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fazelminallah Qaziziai
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.