Taliban’s supreme leader blocks girls returning to school

·5 min read
Taliban fighters hold rifles as they chant victory slogans at the Ahmad Shah Massoud Square in Kabul on August 15 - Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images
Taliban fighters hold rifles as they chant victory slogans at the Ahmad Shah Massoud Square in Kabul on August 15 - Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban’s supreme leader and a small clique of senior conservative clerics are directly preventing Afghan girls attending secondary school, despite misgivings within the wider movement.

Haibatullah Akhunzada and his inner circle overruled plans by the education minister to reopen schools this year, breaking earlier assurances that they would let girls back into classes.

A year after the Taliban seized power, the issue has become an ideological divide, with some international officials in Kabul saying the majority of the regime appear to back a return to school.

Yet deference to the supreme leader and the uncompromising stance of the hardline faction means Taliban advocates of girls’ education are reluctant to challenge them, both Taliban and international sources told The Telegraph.

The leadership is unwilling to change the stance if they cannot reach a consensus and is also trying to stifle open debate. A July gathering of thousands of clerics and elders convened by the Taliban in Kabul had been expected to discuss the issue, but steered clear.

'Trying to present a unified picture'

One Western aid official said: “They don’t want to bring the discussion to the public and not to the international community. They are trying to present a unified picture.”

Akhunzada remains a remote figure a year after humiliating America and its allies and has become increasingly authoritarian.

He was a top justice official during the Taliban’s 1990s rule, as the regime handed down harsh Sharia punishments.

During the Taliban’s long insurgency, his own son died committing a suicide bombing.

He now rules from his home province of Kandahar, rather than the capital Kabul, and has surrounded himself with a small clique of clerics and ministers, leaving other senior Taliban struggling to gain access. He has made few public appearances and has not been photographed.

Sources said that when the education minister travelled to Kandahar to present plans to reopen schools in late March, he was kept waiting for three days.

Male students attend classes as Taliban hardliners continue to block the return to school for girls in Afghanistan - Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images
Male students attend classes as Taliban hardliners continue to block the return to school for girls in Afghanistan - Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images

His proposals were rejected at the last minute, after he had told foreign diplomats schools would open. Schoolgirls turned up for classes, only to find gates closed.

Akhunzada and an inner circle thought to include the chief justice, minister of Hajj and minister of vice and virtue, forbade secondary education for girls.

Senior Taliban figures who had previously spoken in support of girls’ education told The Telegraph they were no longer willing to discuss the matter. “I could tell you I was in favour, but what does it matter, it is not the policy,” said one.

International officials dealing with education said it was unclear what the objection was. Some hardliners are thought to cite religious or cultural grounds, while others say they have practical concerns about how girls can be protected as they walk to school. Diplomats say some are simply stubbornly refusing to bow to demands from the international community.

“There’s a small group of people who don’t want girls’ education,” said one official. “It’s a small group, but they are powerful. They also want to prove that everything that happens in Afghanistan is on their own terms, not on anybody else’s terms.”

Girls quietly attend school in some areas

Differences within the movement have been underlined by the fact that girls have quietly been attending secondary school in as many as nine different provinces, where local Taliban leaders are in favour.

Suhail Shaheen, a senior Taliban negotiator and head of the movement’s Doha political office - who has in the past said his own daughters go to school - blamed “technical problems as well as cultural and traditional constraints” for the failure to open classes nationwide.

He said: “It is important to clarify that the Islamic emirate has never announced that it is against girl’s education. The issue of girls’ secondary education is pending until further notice from the leadership.”

Meanwhile, Mr Shaheen said Britain and other countries taking Afghan refugees should stop encouraging people to flee the country.

He claimed members of the ousted government and military were not at risk and should remain to rebuild the country, which is in economic meltdown a year after the Taliban seized power.

Some 122,000 people were airlifted to different countries as Kabul fell. Hundreds of thousands more are estimated to have fled the country since.

Those leaving, including many who worked alongside British diplomats and troops, say they are fleeing revenge attacks, repression and destitution.

More than 21,000 have been settled in the UK, but hundreds of interpreters, guards and staff who worked for Britain are still stranded in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters celebrate one year since taking Kabul, as they held up rifles and chanted slogans - Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo
Taliban fighters celebrate one year since taking Kabul, as they held up rifles and chanted slogans - Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo

Mr Shaheen said: “This problem emerged when many Western countries announced visa programs and started evacuation missions. If such announcements are made in any developing country, the result will be the same.”

On Monday, Taliban fighters chanted victory slogans near the US embassy in Kabul on the first anniversary of their capture of the city.

“This great victory came after countless sacrifices and hardships,” Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy prime minister and co-founder of the Taliban movement, said on Twitter.

“On this day... the Islamic Emirate brought the world’s superpower and its allies to their knees and Afghans gained their independence,” added Baradar, who in 2020 signed a deal with Washington offering security guarantees in return for the withdrawal of foreign forces.