Afghanistan: Taliban ready to lift ban on girls' schools, says minister

The Guardian

The Taliban's leadership is prepared to drop its ban on girls' schools, one of Afghanistan's most influential cabinet ministers has claimed. According to Farooq Wardak, the country's education minister, the movement has decided to scrap the ban on female education that helped earn the movement worldwide infamy in the 1990s. Wardak said the Taliban's leadership had undergone a profound change since losing power after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

"It is attitudinal change, it is behavioural change, it is cultural change," he told the Times Educational Supplement.

"What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls' education."

The minister, who is one of the most trusted members of Hamid Karzai's inner circle, has a key role in official efforts to bring the Taliban to peace talks.

The movement's two spokesmen were unavailable for comment today and the Taliban have never made any public statements that back up Wardak's claim.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, a leading analyst of the Taliban, said an announcement was unlikely in the near future.

"They are unlikely to announce things like this since it will all come up in any potential negotiations and this is one 'concession' they could make to the foreigners," he said.

Experts say that the attitude of the conservative Islamic movement towards women's education has always been far more ambivalent than popularly understood.

Mullah Zaeef, a former high-ranking Taliban official who served as Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan in 2001, said the movement was not against educating women and that the ban on girls' schools was only a "temporary measure".

Analysts say the policy was largely due to Taliban concerns about boys and girls being educated together and male teachers overseeing female classes.

The movement claimed it would establish a new national education system after it had brought stability to a country where internal conflict continued right up until the US-led invasion of 2001.

Even then some senior members of the regime were known to be extremely unhappy with the policy.

"When I was in Islamabad I spoke to many foreign embassies to see if they were interested in funding girls' schools, but they weren't interested," Zaeef said.

Amir Mansory, an education expert at the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which has supported schools in the country for decades, said 33,000 girls continued to go to school in the late 1990s, despite the official ban.

"It was a sort of hidden policy," Mansory said. "No one said girls could go to school, but in the provinces Taliban officials would approach me asking for the Swedish Committee's help in supporting girls' schools."

And while insurgents have closed down many schools around the country in recent years, Mansory said they have been actively supported in some Taliban-controlled areas, including in Paktika and Wardak provinces.

"I personally think the Taliban are not against education but simply against a western type of education," Mansory said. "And if local people want to educate their girls the Taliban know they can't do anything to stop that."

Analysts report that some local insurgent leaders have struck deals with Wardak's education ministry to keep schools open.

Phil Priestley, a researcher with the Tribal Liaison Office, this summer found large numbers of girls' schools open for business in the largely Taliban-controlled district of Chardara in Kunduz province.

Taliban officials even patrolled schools with attendance sheets and hauled truanting boys from their homes. Girls, on the other hand, were merely encouraged through their local communities to attend school.

But public acceptance of female education by the Taliban would be seen as a milestone, particularly by western nations anxious that any peace deal does not undermine the rights of women.

Taliban leaders have already rethought many of their notorious policies of the 1990s, Strick van Linschoten said. For example, during the Taliban government mobile phones and video were considered un-Islamic but both technologies are now used extensively by insurgents.

"In addition to this, their rethink of the official relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida has been among the more significant developments," Strick van Linschoten said.

By Jon Boone

13 January 2011