The Taliban’s ban on girls’ education and female participation in the workforce has seen unprecedented public divisions among its leadership in recent weeks, with some leaders now advocating for change. The edicts, which make Afghanistan the most restrictive place on earth for females, emanate from a compound in Kandahar, which is home to the movement’s reclusive leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, a man so rarely seen or photographed that some question whether he even exists. Since the Taliban swept back into power 18 months ago, Akhundzada has increasingly become the dominant force and the main barrier to change.
According to Pakistani journalist Arshad Yusufzai, who has followed the Taliban closely for years, “Haibatullah is old school – he still lives in a world of 1,400 years ago, the time of the Prophet. For him everything revolves around religion and he believes giving women rights would undermine what they fought for. He has no know-how about politics and thinks it doesn’t matter if the international community cuts them off and stops aid – he says they survived 20 years on their own during the jihad and Allah will provide.”
While Taliban ministers have sent their own daughters to attend schools in Pakistan and the Gulf, none of them defend the ban on female education in private. Many more blame the ban for the regime’s pariah status, which has left it without recognition by any other country and bereft of foreign aid at a time when 28 million Afghans are on the verge of starvation.
However, the disagreement among the Taliban leadership has now gone public. Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani warned that monopolising power and hurting the reputation of the entire system are not to their benefit. Defence Minister Mullah Yaqub, the son of former Taliban leader Omar, warned that the government should “listen to the legitimate demands” of the population so they can live “without physical, intellectual or religious invasion”. And at Friday prayers, a leading cleric, Maulvi Abdul Hamid, addressed Taliban leaders directly, saying preventing girls from going to school and university was like “preventing them from praying”.
Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who traveled to Afghanistan last month, said, “There are clear divisions. They all gave the message we cannot work without female colleagues and all were against the ban.” Egeland met three Taliban ministers, including the economy minister who announced the measure in the first place.
It remains to be seen whether these divisions will translate into changes in policy, but the public splits among the Taliban leadership over bans on girls’ education and female participation in the workforce have offered some hope of change in Afghanistan.