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A Taliban official attends a ceremony for the re-opening of the schools at the Amani high school.

A Taliban official attends a ceremony for the re-opening of the schools at the Amani high school. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/The Washington Post)

KABUL - Fatima and Khudija arrived at their school in central Kabul early Wednesday, eager to see their exam results from the previous year, but after just a few minutes inside their old classrooms the deputy principal reluctantly ordered them off the premises immediately.

While thousands of schools reopened for the first time since the Taliban takeover in August, a last minute ruling from the group banned classes for girls beyond the sixth grade, according to a statement from the Ministry of Education.

“At that moment all we felt was sadness,” said Fatima, 15, who like Khudija, 19, spoke on 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.”

The future of girls’ education and women’s rights under the Taliban has been central to discussions with the international community where Taliban officials have pressed for international recognition, the easing of financial sanctions and increased aid money. But female students and teachers say they fear Wednesday’s order signals the group is unwilling to provide access to education for all Afghans regardless of gender.

“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 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 Ministry of Education, said at the ceremony. He said the Taliban’s acting cabinet needs to consider “some cultural and religious obligations” first. The Ministry of Education statement 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 the Taliban are “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 over seven months ago, stating the group needed time to develop national education policies. But pledged all Afghan children - boys and girls - would be allowed to return to class this week, according to Rayan, the Education Ministry spokesman.

But school officials, like Muhammad Ibrahim, the 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 said. He and his colleagues had already prepared curriculums and schedules assuming all their students would return. It was “heartbreaking,” to tell the older girls they were not allowed through the school yard gates and had to go home. “This is something unprecedented.”

Social media was flooded by 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 the majority of the Afghan territory it controlled before the group took 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 issued vague statements when asked about the future of education for women, especially beyond the elementary-school level. Generally, Afghan students are 13 years old when they enter secondary school in the seventh grade.

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, from Logar province was informed all his daughters could return to school Wednesday, but those in seventh grade and above would be required to wear a head to toe covering, gloves and black shoes. Despite wearing the new uniform, he said the principal sent them home, saying the school did not have enough female teachers.

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 is because they are not optimistic about the future,” he said.

Wednesday’s ruling will likely be seen as a setback in the eyes of Western governments that have been pushing the Taliban to be respectful of the rights of women and allow access to education for all Afghans regardless of gender.

Rayan, the Education Ministry spokesman, said ultimately the decision regarding access to education for Afghan women and girls needs to be made by top leadership.

“Reopening of girl’s schools above the sixth grade is beyond the mandate of the Education Ministry,” he said. But he added 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 nearly all the students raised their hands when asked if they had an older sister barred from attending class Wednesday.

12-year-old Shahnaz Nasrati said her sister was sad and anxious after she was turned away from class 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, referring to advancing to the next grade. If she’s barred from school next year, Nasrati said “we will have to start demonstrating!”

The rest of the girls in the classroom laughed, but when asked who would participate, everyone’s hand shot up.

The Washington Post’s Aziz Tassal in Houston, Texas and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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