The U-turn came after hundreds of girls returned to school for the first time since the Taliban took control of the nation in August and placed severe restrictions on women.
Even though authorities performed a ceremony in the capital to celebrate the start of the academic year, the education ministry gave no cogent explanation, stating it was a matter for the country’s leadership.
“In Afghanistan, especially in the villages, the mindsets are not ready,” spokesman Aziz Ahmad Rayan told reporters. “We have some cultural restrictions… but the main spokesmen of the Islamic Emirate will offer better clarifications.”
The decision was made following a meeting of senior Taliban leaders late Tuesday in Kandahar, the movement’s de facto power center and conservative spiritual stronghold, according to a Taliban source.
The ministry had set the date for females to return to school weeks before, with spokesperson Rayan claiming the Taliban had a “responsibility to provide education and other facilities to our students”.
They insisted that students aged 12 to 19 be segregated and taught according to Islamic norms, despite the fact that most Afghan schools are already mixed-gender.
Crestfallen girls at Zarghona High School in the capital, Kabul, tearfully packed up their belongings after teachers halted the lesson. “I see my students crying and reluctant to leave classes,” said Palwasha, a teacher at Omara Khan girls’ school in Kabul. “It is very painful to see them crying.”
The UN rights chief voiced deep disappointment over the decision. “I share the profound frustration and disappointment of Afghan high school girls and women, who after six months of anticipation were prevented from returning to school today,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement in Geneva.
“The de facto authorities’ failure to adhere to commitments to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade — in spite of repeated commitments towards girls’ education, including during my visit to Kabul two weeks ago — is deeply damaging for Afghanistan,” she said and warned that “the denial of education violates the human rights of women and girls.
US special envoy to Afghanistan Rina Amiri tweeted the move “weakens confidence in the Taliban commitments” and “further dashes the hopes of families for a better future for their daughters”.
Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Laureate who survived a Taliban murder attempt when she was 15 years old and has long advocated for girls’ education, voiced her disappointment as well.
“They will keep finding excuses to stop girls from learning — because they are afraid of educated girls and empowered women,” she said on Twitter.
Afghan expert Andrew Watkins, of the US Institute of Peace, said the about-face reflected a rift in the Taliban leadership. “This last-minute change appears to be driven by ideological differences in the movement… about how girls returning to school will be perceived by their followers,” he said.