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US cancels Taliban talks over girls' school U-turn

March 26, 2022

The US has canceled Doha talks with the Taliban after the rulers of Afghanistan backtracked on allowing girls to attend secondary school. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai predicted that the curbs would not endure.

Girls arrive at school in Afghanistan
The Taliban ordered girls' secondary schools in Afghanistan to close on March 23, just hours after they reopenedImage: Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP/Getty Images

The United States has announced that it has canceled planned talks with the Taliban after the rulers of Afghanistan made a U-turn on girls' education, shutting girls out of middle and high schools hours after doors were opened. 

"We have canceled some of our engagements, including planned meetings in Doha around the Doha Forum, and have made clear that we see this decision as a potential turning point in our engagement," said State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter.

Women's rights and the education of girls were major causes for concern when the Taliban seized power last August amid a hurried withdrawal of international forces in Afghanistan. After months of uncertainty, the Education Ministry last week announced it would open schools for all students, including girls, beginning Wednesday.

Schools closed abruptly

But hours after classes began, the ministry posted a new notice: "We inform all-girls high schools and those schools that are having female students above class six that they are off until the next order."

The announcement was met with disappointment from girls who were turned away from schools and condemnation from international powers, who have been lobbying for women's rights under the Taliban regime.

Taliban reverse Afghan girls' schooling

Malala: Ban on girls won't last forever

Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai said Saturday that maintaining the ban would be "much harder this time," making a comparison to an earlier education ban during the Taliban's strict rule of the 1990s, where women and girls had very few freedoms. She predicted that the new curbs will "not last forever."

"Women have seen what it means to be educated, what it means to be empowered. This time is going to be much harder for the Taliban to maintain the ban on girls' education," she told the Doha Forum.

Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban when she was 15, said girls' schooling should be a condition of diplomatic recognition.

"They [The Taliban] shouldn't be recognized if they didn't recognize the human rights of women and girls," she said.

Small Protest in Kabul 

Dozens of teachers, students and women's rights activists rallied in the Afghan capital on Saturday against the ban.

Local media shared footage of a few dozen women, together with girls wearing school uniforms, demanding their rights to study and work.

"Open the schools! Justice, justice!" chanted the protesters. Some held banners that said: "Education is our fundamental right, not a political plan."

An organizer told dpa news agency that the march had begun in front of the education ministry in the capital and ended peacefully.

Female foreign ministers condemn move

A group of female foreign ministers from 16 countries around the world also expressed their disappointment in a joint statement on Friday.

"As women and as foreign ministers, we are deeply disappointed and concerned that girls in Afghanistan are being denied access to secondary schools this spring," said the foreign ministers of Albania, Andorra, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Iceland, Kosovo, Malawi, Mongolia, New Zealand, Sweden, Tonga and Britain.

They said the decision "is particularly disturbing as we repeatedly heard their commitments to open all schools for all children."

'Taliban are divided' on girls' education, says former Afghan MP

"We call upon the Taliban to reverse their recent decision and to grant equal access to all levels of education, in all provinces of the country," they added.

The UN Security Council also held a closed-door discussion on the issue.

The Taliban had promised a softer rule when they returned to power last year, claiming they respect women's rights in line with their interpretation of Islamic law, Shariah. They also said girls would be allowed to study up to university.

However, the Islamist group has imposed a range of restrictions on women, more or less banning them from government jobs, policing what they wear and keeping them from traveling out of their cities alone.

mm, see/kb (AFP, AP)