Afghanistan's secret schools for girls

(AP Photos/Ahmad Seir)

Shortly after America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s Supreme Leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, ordered an end to school for girls beyond elementary school. (And even some of the elementary schools were closed to them later.) But the Wall Street Journal is reporting this week that his plans haven’t worked out entirely as he had hoped. Akhundzada is getting some pushback from his own people, including some high-ranking members of the Taliban. And there have been secret schools popping up around the country where girls are allowed to complete their education, despite the Supreme Leader’s attempts to have them shut down. This could turn out to be a rare positive sign of progress, but the people operating the schools still face significant danger if they are discovered. (Subscription required)

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A year ago, the Taliban’s supreme leader revived the Taliban’s signature policy from the 1990s and banned girls from attending secondary school.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is discovering that it is one thing to issue a fiat, and quite another to enforce it in an Afghanistan that has changed dramatically since the Taliban last ruled. The reclusive leader is coming under intense pressure even from within his own movement to reverse it, a clash that is spilling into the open as the new school year begins this week.

On a Kabul side street one recent afternoon, around 40 girls filed discreetly into a two-room house hosting an underground school. Many arrived an hour early to socialize with other children. They are now largely confined indoors since the Taliban stormed back to power 19 months ago.

When the Taliban were out of power, many of them moved to Pakistan. In that country, women and girls have more freedom of movement and girls attending high school and even college are fairly common. This apparently changed the views of some of the Taliban leaders and they are now calling for similar changes in Afghanistan. Some are reportedly sending their own daughters to these secret schools. Others have sent their daughters back to Pakistan to attend school.

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In the past month, both the Taliban’s Interior Minister and Defense Minister have made public comments about “not ruling like dictators” and “listening to legitimate demands of the people.” Thus far, that doesn’t seem to have swayed the Supreme Leader, but he also isn’t arresting or assassinating his ministers for debating the point. Perhaps there will be some progress.

This is a very different look inside the secretive Taliban upper ranks. I’m not suggesting that there actually is a “kinder, gentler Taliban,” as we often joke about here. But any progress is better than none. Is it possible that the Taliban’s leadership will be dragged kicking and screaming into at least the 18th century if not the 21st?

When they first swept into power nearly two years ago, one of the first things the Taliban did was renege on the various promises they made to the international community. Chief among those was a pledge to have more respect for women’s rights. Initially, they did leave some of the schools in Kabul open to girls, though most of the ones in the more remote provinces reportedly closed almost immediately. But eventually, girls were removed from virtually all secondary schools. And the practice of selling off young girls into marriage resumed as well. It would be startling to see those trends reverse, though we probably shouldn’t get our hopes up just yet. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.

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John Stossel 12:00 AM | April 24, 2024
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