An earlier version of this article said schools were reopening Wednesday for the first time since the Taliban takeover in August. Some schools reopened in September. The article has been corrected.
“At that moment, all we felt was sadness,” said Fatima, 15, who like Khudija, 19, spoke on the condition that only her first name be used for fear of reprisals. “We suffered for a long time to get an education and faced many difficulties. So when we finally returned, and it was taken away, it was overwhelming. All we could do was cry.”
Girls’ education and women’s rights have been central to discussions between the Taliban and the international community in which the group has pressed for international recognition, the easing of financial sanctions and an increase in aid money. But female students and teachers say they fear that Wednesday’s order is a signal the Taliban is unwilling to provide access to education for all Afghans.
“If they [the Taliban] don’t reconsider this decision, I fear they will take more steps against women,” Fatima said.
Across town, at an all-boys school, Taliban officials gathered Wednesday at a ceremony marking the reopening of schools. Uniformed male students holding Taliban flags stood at attention and chanted “God is great” as the event began and concluded.
“We assure our Afghan sisters that they would be allowed to attend school once our leadership makes a decision,” Aziz Ahmad Rayan, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, said at the ceremony. He said the Taliban’s acting cabinet needs to consider “some cultural and religious obligations” first. A statement from the Education Ministry said it hasn’t designed a school uniform for female students that is “in accordance with sharia [Islamic] law, Afghan culture and customs.”
Mawlawi Noorul Haq, a senior Taliban official who also spoke at the ceremony, pushed back against claims that the Taliban is “anti-education.”
“In reality, the basis of the Taliban is knowledge. We fought against ignorance,” he said.
The Taliban closed all schools after taking control of the country more than seven months ago. The group allowed some to reopen, but kept many shuttered — particularly girls’ schools — saying it needed time to develop national education policies. Rayan said last week that all Afghan children — boys and girls — would be allowed to return to class when schools reopened Wednesday.
School officials like Muhammad Ibrahim, a principal at Ayesha Durkhanai girls’ school in Kabul, were not informed of the reversal until Tuesday night, when he received a WhatsApp message in a group chat for his education district.
“How do you think I felt?” he asked. He and his colleagues had prepared curriculums and schedules assuming that all their students would return. It was “heartbreaking,” he said, to tell the older girls they were not allowed through the schoolyard gates and had to go home. “This is something unprecedented.”
Social media was flooded with images and videos, some broadcast by local media, of young women and girls crying outside the schools they were barred from entering.
“We are also humans. Why should we not be allowed to go to school? Our hearts are crying tears of blood,” one woman told an Afghan television network, not identifying herself by name on camera. “Why? What did we do? What are we guilty of?” she asked.
The Taliban banned girls from education beyond elementary school in most of the Afghan territory it controlled before taking over the entire country last year. In many Taliban-controlled districts, there was not a single functioning school for girls for years.
Since taking control of Afghanistan, the group has issued vague statements when asked about the future of education for girls and women, especially beyond elementary school. Generally, Afghan students are 13 when they enter secondary school in the seventh grade.
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Residents in provinces outside Kabul described similar scenes Wednesday morning when they sent their daughters back to school, only to have their older girls sent home.
Noorullah Stanakzai, 45, of Logar province, had been informed that all his daughters could return to school Wednesday but that those in seventh grade and beyond would be required to wear a head-to-toe covering, gloves and black shoes. Despite wearing the new uniform, he said, the girls were sent home. The principal said the school did not have enough female teachers, Stanakzai said.
Even before Wednesday’s ruling, Stanakzai said, his daughters “were not as eager to go to school as they used to be. They told me, ‘My future is no longer clear,’ and they worry that soon it will not be possible for women to go to university in Afghanistan.”
“They have lost interest in school because they are not optimistic about the future,” he said.
Wednesday’s ruling is likely to be seen as a setback by Western governments that have been pushing the Taliban to respect the rights of women and allow access to education for all Afghans regardless of gender.
Rayan, the Education Ministry spokesman, said that ultimately the decision on access to education for women and girls will have to be made by top leadership.
“Reopening of girls’ schools above the sixth grade is beyond the mandate of the Education Ministry,” he said. But he added that the ministry will “work closely with Taliban leadership to secure permission for the reopening of all girls’ schools.”
In a sixth-grade classroom at Ayesha Durkhanai girls’ school in Kabul on Wednesday, nearly all the students raised their hands when asked if they had an older sister barred from attending classes.
Twelve-year-old Shahnaz Nasrati said her sister was sad and anxious after she was turned away that morning.
“We want the officials to allow the older girls to also attend school, because otherwise none of us will be able to go higher,” she said. If she is barred from school next year, Shahnaz said, “we will have to start demonstrating!”
The rest of the girls in the classroom laughed, but when they were asked who would participate, everyone’s hand shot up.
Aziz Tassal in Houston and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.