TThe Taliban official’s wife apologized for keeping the visit short. She needed to get the teenage girls ready to fly to Doha, Qatar’s capital, where they would soon start a new term, she explained to her host earlier this year.
In Kabul, and across much of Afghanistan, girls have not been legally able to attend high school for almost a year, due to a Taliban ban. Officials insist the ruling is only temporary, but have set no conditions or timeline for lifting it.
The ban sparked a wave of depression and anger inside Afghanistan, and widespread revulsion outside the country’s borders. It also caused less immediately visible divisions within the movement itself, reflecting deeper fractures among former rebels struggling to adjust to running a government.
It is an open secret that several senior figures in the leadership educated their own daughters while living outside Afghanistan – mostly in Pakistan or Qatar – during their 20-year battle against US forces and their Afghan allies.
Some have continued to do so secretly even after moving back to Kabul, including the family whose international school schedules were shared with Observer.
Less elite members of the movement have looked for alternatives closer to home. A secret school for girls in the capital has enrolled the daughters of four or five Taliban families in grades seven to twelve, a senior staff member said.
One Talib official came to personally ask for a larger-than-usual discount, and teachers told him about the others, he said. “I was scared and also happy that he and the others are somehow invested in the other kids at school now, and want to defend and support us.”
In the private commitment of some Taliban members to ensure education for their own girls at any cost, other Afghans see both hypocrisy and some hope for change. However, it will probably be a long battle, because the opposition to women’s schooling comes from the top of the Taliban movement.
Several Afghans with knowledge of the Taliban leadership, both inside and outside the movement, described the decision to ban girls from school as coming straight from the supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, and his inner circle.
Haibatullah, or his close allies, ordered one of the cruelest moments of the past year, they said, when high school girls summoned in March to start classes again were ordered back home shortly after showing up for the first the teaching day.
“This is the attitude of a minority, which is in a very strong position,” said a well-connected Afghan source.
Diplomats and Afghans with ties to the leadership said the education ministry had earnestly planned to get girls back into schools, with preparations including checking that the facilities met Taliban standards for segregated classes. The ministry was blindsided by the last-minute verdict from Kandahar, where Haibatullah is based.
“Two eminent [figures in the movement] said “The Taliban have been taken hostage”, the Afghan leadership source said.
He described a gathering of thousands of clerics, organized last month, as an attempt by other frustrated Taliban factions to outmaneuver the leadership and claim legitimacy for girls’ education.
That plan was thwarted when Haibatullah came to Kabul for the first time, to address the meeting, in a speech that narrowly sidestepped the issue of girls’ education.
Despite taboos about criticizing the leadership, after decades of emphasizing unity on the battlefield, a handful of senior Taliban figures have spoken out against the ban.
In May, the deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, directly attacked the ban on girls’ education in a televised speech defending the rights of “half the population of Afghanistan”.
Taliban cleric Rahimullah Haqqani, who was killed last week by an Islamic State suicide bomber, had previously told the BBC that Afghan women and girls should have access to education: “There is no justification in Sharia. [law] to say female education is not allowed. No justification at all.
“All the religious books have stated that female education is permissible and obligatory, because if, for example, a woman falls ill in an Islamic environment like Afghanistan or Pakistan and needs treatment, it is much better if she is treated by a female doctor.”
In June, the central government launched a bloody response to an insurgency by a Taliban insurgent commander in Balkhab district, in northern Sar-e-pol province. The conflict had complex roots, but sources said so Observer that before leader Mawlawi Mehdi lost his government job, he had also defended girls’ education.
And because the ban is officially only temporary, and the Taliban have always said they support the principle of women’s right to education, some officials with younger daughters are willing to be open about their own stance on schooling.
Maulawi Ahmed Taqi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education, highlighted efforts to adapt universities to allow women to study while meeting Taliban demands for strict gender segregation, as a sign of the group’s commitment to women’s education.
“I have daughters and of course I want my girls to be educated in religious madrassas in addition to receiving a modern education,” he said.
They are currently in primary school, but he is sure they will be able to continue their education when they get older, he added.
“I am optimistic that the schools will not be closed forever”