Despite promises by the militants to let girls go to school, many Afghans fear girls' opportunities will be severely limited
By Emma Batha
LONDON, Mar 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Taliban have backtracked on a promise to allow tens of thousands of schoolgirls in Afghanistan to return to class for the new term.
Most older girls have been out of school since August when the hardline Islamist movement seized the country.
The Ministry of Education had said that girls above grade 6 - aged about 13 and up - would be allowed back on March 23 as schools reopened nationwide following the long winter break.
But as excited students arrived for their classes they were abruptly told to go home again, leaving some in tears and others reacting in anger.
The Taliban said the schools would stay shut until a plan was drawn up for them to reopen in accordance with Islamic law.
The group banned female education and most employment for women when they were last in power from 1996 to 2001.
The international community has made the education of girls a key demand for any future recognition of the Taliban administration.
All boys, along with younger girls, were allowed to resume their education last year.
What's the sticking point?
There are disagreements about girls' education among the Taliban.
The group has repeatedly specified they must be taught in accordance with Islamic law, without specifying exactly what that means.
The BBC reported that the decision to send girls home was related to their school uniforms.
The curriculum, girls' transport to schools, and gender segregation are among other issues that have come under discussion since the Taliban took over.
An education official said in mid-March that girls would be taught separately when they returned to school and only by female teachers.
In some rural areas with a shortage of female teachers, he said older male teachers would be allowed to teach girls.
What have girls been doing since August?
Most have been at home, but some have been continuing to study online.
A few girls' high schools were able to reopen last year. Private universities in Kabul have also continued to operate. Photos on social media have shown classrooms with curtains down the middle, separating male and female students.
How has girls' education changed since the Taliban were last in power?
School attendance rose rapidly when the ban on girls' education ended in 2001 after U.S.-led forces ousted the previous Taliban regime.
More than 3.6 million girls were enrolled by 2018 - more than 2.5 million in primary school and over 1 million in secondary.
The increase in girls in secondary education was particularly marked, with nearly 40% enrolled in 2018 compared with 6% in 2003, according to the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF.
The number going to university also soared, with tens of thousands attending before the Taliban's return. Some were studying to become doctors, lawyers, scientists and journalists.
In 2015, Kabul University even launched a master's degree in gender and women's studies.
Nonetheless, the country has one of the biggest education gender gaps.
Girls accounted for 60% of the 3.7 million Afghan children out of school before the Taliban took over, according to UNICEF.
Only 37% of teenage girls can read and write, compared to 66% of boys, according to Human Rights Watch.
Government data suggests a third of girls are married by the age of 18 and nearly 9% by 15.
Are closed classrooms the only obstacle?
Even if girls are allowed back to high schools they will still face hurdles.
A long-standing shortage of women teachers will likely be even more acute now after many professionals fled the country following the Taliban takeover.
Only a third of teachers were female in 2016, according to UNICEF, and the proportion was much lower in rural areas and above primary level.
With only 10-15% of female teachers fully qualified, there are also question marks about the standard of education girls will receive.
Another issue is the lack of career opportunities. With the Taliban effectively barring women from most jobs, families may be less inclined to educate their daughters.
There are also fears that girls' schooling will increasingly focus on religious education.
Taliban officials in several provinces are already removing secular subjects from the curriculum and expanding religious study, according to Human Rights Watch.
Girls face additional barriers in rural areas. While 70% of girls attended primary school in urban areas before the Taliban took over, only 40% did so in rural areas, according to the Center for Global Development.
The difference between urban and rural boys is much smaller.
Traditional attitudes around girls, along with poverty, safety concerns and transport difficulties, are common reasons why rural families keep their daughters out of school.
A Taliban ban on mixed schools could exacerbate the gender gap in some provinces where only one in 10 teachers are female.
Can the Taliban turn back the clock?
Humanitarian experts say the Taliban have taken over in very different circumstances compared with two decades ago.
In 1996, the country was devastated by civil war, a generation had grown up with little or no education, and most educated Afghans had left.
Donors have since poured billions of dollars into education, with the rise in girls' education and employment opportunities often highlighted as a success.
Many former refugees also returned after 2001, having been educated abroad and exposed to a wider world view.
Support for girls' education remains high in Afghanistan, with 87% in favour, according to a 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation, an international development organisation.
But even if the Taliban make good on their pledge to let girls study, experts say the militants' underlying philosophy has not changed, making it unlikely that women will be able to pursue careers and engage in public life.
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This story was updated on Mar. 23 with news of the Taliban breaking its pledge to allow older girls to return to classes for the new term.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)