ISLAMABAD - A senior Taliban official Tuesday called on his men-only government in Afghanistan to reopen all secondary schools to girls without further delay, saying there is no Islamic restriction on female education.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban deputy foreign minister, made the rare appeal in a televised speech to a gathering of top Taliban officials and leaders in the capital, Kabul.
Since seizing power more than a year ago, the former Islamist insurgent group stopped girls beyond the sixth grade from returning to classrooms, portraying the move as based on religious principles.
"Education is obligatory on both men and women, without any discrimination. None of the religious scholars present here can deny this obligation. No one can offer a justification based on [Islamic] Sharia for opposing [women's right to education]," Stanikzai said.
"It is the duty of the Islamic Emirate to set the stage for reopening doors of education to all Afghans as soon as possible because the delay is increasing gap between us [the government] and the nation on this particular issue," he warned. The Taliban call their government the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The United Nations estimates the education ban has barred nearly one million girls from attending secondary in Afghanistan.
"If [the] Taliban continue failing to uphold the rights of all Afghans and to engage constructively with [the] international community, Afghanistan's future is uncertain: fragmentation, isolation, poverty and internal conflict are likely scenarios," Potzel Markus, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan told a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday.
In the run-up to the session, 10 elected and five incoming UNSC members urged the Taliban to allow girls to return to secondary schools, noting that September 18 marked one year since the radical group banned girls' education.
"We are calling on the Taliban to immediately reverse this decision," Norway's ambassador, Mona Juul, read in a joint statement to reporters in New York. 'The Taliban have made Afghanistan the only country in the entire world where girls are banned from attending secondary school," she added.
"The increased risks associated with disruption of education, particularly for girls, makes them more vulnerable to child labor and forced marriages. It impacts their future economic opportunities and results in long-term obstacles for durable peace, security and development," Juul said.
The Taliban have also instructed women to cover their faces in public and told many female public sector employees to stay home since returning to power in August 2021, when the United States and NATO troops withdrew from the country.
Stanikzai, a rare moderate voice among senior Taliban figures, led the Taliban's team in months of negotiations with the United States that resulted in the February 2020 agreement between the two rivals and set the stage for all foreign troops to leave the country after almost two decades.
Other Taliban officials have privately also advocated for reopening the schools to teenage girls, but critics say none of them can dare challenge the group's supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and a couple of his associates who are apparently behind the school closure and curbs on women.
Veil restrictions on women and banning them from long road travel without a male relative as well as other curbs on civil liberties are among key concerns deterring foreign governments from recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.
The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan prompted Western countries to stop their financial assistance, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis and pushing the national economy to the brink of collapse, with millions of Afghans facing acute hunger.
Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.