Taliban Reversal on Girls’ Education Ignites World’s Anger

The sudden about-face could undercut the Taliban’s hopes for international recognition.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Girls attend class in Afghanistan.
Girls attend class in Afghanistan.
Girls attend a class after their school reopened, hours before the Taliban ordered girls’ secondary schools to shut down, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 23. AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

For days, teenage girls wearing their school uniforms have marched in protest in Kabul after the Taliban reneged on a pledge to finally reopen secondary schools for female students, a move that appears to have forced a reappraisal in Western capitals about the true nature of the extremist regime.

On March 23, after a seven-month hiatus, girls across the country broke out their black tunics and trousers and white headscarves to return to class for the start of the new school year, only to be sent home within hours. 

For teenage girls who’d been anticipating their return to school, the last-minute reversal was too much to bear. Tears turned to anger, and on Friday and Saturday, dozens of female students braved the very real possibility of arrest and beatings to put on their uniforms, march in the street, and shout slogans condemning the ban. They gathered near the Ministry of Education, some holding their textbooks, others waving banners reading, “Education is our fundamental right, not a political plan.” They chanted “Open the schools! Justice! Justice!” until Taliban gunmen arrived and they fled. “Even the Prophet [Muhammad] said everyone has the right to education, but the Taliban have snatched this right from us,” a girl named Nawesa was quoted as saying in the Guardian.

For days, teenage girls wearing their school uniforms have marched in protest in Kabul after the Taliban reneged on a pledge to finally reopen secondary schools for female students, a move that appears to have forced a reappraisal in Western capitals about the true nature of the extremist regime.

On March 23, after a seven-month hiatus, girls across the country broke out their black tunics and trousers and white headscarves to return to class for the start of the new school year, only to be sent home within hours. 

For teenage girls who’d been anticipating their return to school, the last-minute reversal was too much to bear. Tears turned to anger, and on Friday and Saturday, dozens of female students braved the very real possibility of arrest and beatings to put on their uniforms, march in the street, and shout slogans condemning the ban. They gathered near the Ministry of Education, some holding their textbooks, others waving banners reading, “Education is our fundamental right, not a political plan.” They chanted “Open the schools! Justice! Justice!” until Taliban gunmen arrived and they fled. “Even the Prophet [Muhammad] said everyone has the right to education, but the Taliban have snatched this right from us,” a girl named Nawesa was quoted as saying in the Guardian.

Outrage from Western governments over the Taliban’s sudden about-face on education stands in stark contrast to the relative silence that has greeted the extremist group’s abuses of human rights and wholesale rollback of progress since they retook power last August.

The United States and other Western governments said the move imperiled the Taliban’s coveted recognition as Afghanistan’s legitimate government; Washington canceled some meetings with the Taliban and said the decision could impact bilateral contact. We have canceled some of our engagements, including planned meetings in Doha, and made clear that we see this decision as a potential turning point in our engagement,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Reuters. More retributive measures could follow, another source close to the State Department told Foreign Policy.

A joint statement by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, and the European Union called for the decision to be reversed. It would “profoundly harm Afghanistan’s prospects for social cohesion and economic growth, its ambition to become a respected member in the community of nations, and the willingness of Afghans to return from overseas,” it said.

“It will have an inevitable impact on the Taliban’s prospects of gaining political support and legitimacy either at home or abroad. Every Afghan citizen, boy or girl, man or woman, has an equal right to an education at all levels, in all provinces of the country,” it added.

The decision to shut down girls’ secondary education came as members of the Taliban’s interim cabinet met in the southern city of Kandahar to plot a course to diplomatic recognition, which could bring much-needed funding to alleviate Afghanistan’s economic collapse and widespread poverty and hunger. Women’s rights and education of girls were not discussed, sources with knowledge of the agenda said.

“The people that matter in the group are against educating girls and women. I don’t see this decision changing,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, an analyst and researcher on Afghanistan.

“Instead, I think they’re playing for time, knowing that most people around the world who say they care will move on to other things and forget about this issue,” he added. “I have a hard time believing there are significant divisions within the Taliban that would challenge this ban.” 

“This is why it is essential for the international community to press on this issue in line with democratic and human rights principles, and contrary to some countries like Russia and China, which are intent on appeasing the Taliban and challenging the values the international community painstakingly fostered in Afghanistan,” Ali said. “What we are seeing play out on the ground is essentially a struggle for dominance of values that will shape Afghan society and its relationship with the international community for generations to come.”

Although women’s rights and human rights are high-profile issues for the world outside Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely more unified than divided on repression, justified with vague references to Islam. Excuses for sending girls home on March 23 included the curriculum and uniform that apparently need to accord more closely to the Taliban’s version of the religion they claim to be honoring. With March designated as Women’s History Month, the Taliban’s opposition to educating girls is a timely reminder that countries that invest in girls’ education are more likely to be peaceful, prosperous, and progressive than those that do not.

UNICEF estimates that 129 million girls are not in school worldwide, including 32 million of primary age and 97 million of secondary age. The agency has found that investment in girls’ education leads to higher national growth rates, lower rates of child marriage and child mortality, lower maternal mortality, and increased lifetime earnings for women.

“The Taliban are so afraid of women’s education,” said an Afghan father of two, a boy and a girl at primary school, who asked that his name not be used. “If you have an educated mother, her sons won’t go to madrassas [religious schools] to be brainwashed. Educated women undercut the power of the Taliban, who just want to breed future generations of jihadists.”

Since Aug. 15, 2021, when the Taliban overthrew the U.S-backed Afghan republic, the Taliban have rolled back women’s rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution and detained and beaten women who have protested. Some have been killed, their bodies mutilated; rumors of gang rapes are difficult to verify due to a tendency to blame women rather than their attackers. Leading Taliban figures repeatedly say women are inferior to men and have largely barred them from work and public life—all echoes of the way the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when they were forcibly ejected by the United States and its allies.

“The Taliban’s restrictions on girls’ education are largely the same as when they ruled in 1996-2001,” a Human Rights Watch report said. “The excuses for closing girls’ schools are disingenuous: the goal is to block girls from studying indefinitely. It’s the same pattern as in the late 1990s; pretextual excuses, promises, betrayals, lies, new promises, more lies.”

Widespread rights abuses over the past seven months have elicited only feeble rebukes and scant action from the international community, including the United Nations, which issued a statement on March 23 expressing “regrets.” But international organizations had pressed the Taliban to restore educational opportunities for young women, with institutions like the World Bank pressing for equal education in return for the release of funds frozen by U.S. sanctions. The announcement by the Taliban’s Ministry of Education in mid-March of a resumption of classes for high school girls was greeted as a breakthrough. It quickly became a letdown.

For Shukria Barakzai, a journalist, politician, and women’s rights activist until leaving Afghanistan amid threats days after the republic’s fall, there were no surprises in the Taliban’s duplicity.

“I was not surprised because I don’t trust them,” she said. “But I was surprised that the world was surprised. It was clear that they are not reliable. They broke their agreements from the start; they are not the ones to fulfill their promises.”

“But I am proud, despite all the injustices, in the way girls deliver their message, the way they challenge the Taliban,” she added. “That’s bravery. That’s courage.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.