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Afghans unite in demanding that the Taliban let girls attend secondary school

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's head overseas now. Pushback against Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers is rare. Critics sometimes disappear only to emerge frightened, unwilling to talk. So it is striking to see Afghans of nearly all stripes demanding the Taliban allow girls to attend secondary school. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

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DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Afghan women and girls march in Kabul.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: They chant, "justice; we are sick of captivity." Women and girls were largely banned from secondary schools since the Taliban seized power eight months ago. Officials promised they could return in late March, but in the background, analysts say powerful hardline clerics demanded the ban be extended. For them, just the idea of teenage girls leaving their homes was unacceptable, although Taliban officials have suggested they changed their minds because teenage girls needed a more modest uniform to attend class, more than the standard headscarf they already wear. The girls found out about the Taliban's backtrack when they turned up to class. One teacher recalled the scene to NPR's Kabul producer Fazelminallah Qazizai.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: (Through interpreter) We told them they had to leave. The girls were crying. They pleaded, we are ready to wear burkas, but please let us stay.

HADID: Since then, there's been sporadic protests by young women. There's gatherings of scholars, intellectuals and feminists who call on the Taliban to change course. And in the past few weeks, a new cohort has joined their call.

IBRAHEEM BAHISS: Taliban-affiliated clerics are also pushing back against this decision.

HADID: Ibraheem Bahiss is an analyst with the International Crisis Group. He says these clerics come from all over Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

BAHISS: They're trying to convince the hard-liners that this decision is detrimental and they need to agree to opening girls' schools.

HADID: Like cleric Jalilullah Akhumdzada in Herat.

JALILULLAH AKHUMDZADA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: His son, Mualana Muhibullah, says his father issued a fatwa supporting girls' education because he felt the Taliban were giving Muslims a bad name by banning them from secondary education. The most high-profile pushback so far has come from a Pakistani cleric, Mufti Taqi Usmani, one of the Muslim world's most influential religious scholars. He sent a short letter to the Taliban leadership that was leaked to the media. He argues their ban is fodder for anti-Islamic sentiment and that girls can be educated in segregated institutions. The clerics are a lot harder to ignore than feminists, scholars or girls, and it's embarrassing for the Taliban to be chastised by so many scholars. Bahiss again.

BAHISS: That seems to be undoing the claim of the hard-liners that they are in majority or that the majority of clerics are with them when it comes to their decision to reverse the education.

HADID: It's clear there's also resentment against those hard-liners within the Taliban itself. At a gathering of senior Taliban bureaucrats that an NPR producer attended, they complained the ban was making them look incompetent and out of touch with how Afghanistan has changed. And it has changed after nearly two decades of Western-backed rule.

SAMIRA HAMIDI: There is a huge awareness on importance of girls' education. Women and girls, some of them have been leading the whole financial support for their families. And this all has happened only because these women and girls were educated.

HADID: Samira Hamidi is Amnesty International's South Asia campaigner and an Afghan woman. She says perhaps one reason why Afghans are largely uniting around the demand to send girls to secondary school is that just about every family has a school-age daughter.

HAMIDI: They all have teenage girls, and they are all traumatized right now. Even if you don't have a teenage girl in your house, if you have a daughter of a younger age - if this issue is not going to be resolved, there is no future for these girls.

HADID: The Ministry of Education says they're ready to open classes as soon as the leadership makes a decision. But it's unclear whether the hard-liners will relent and allow girls to attend secondary school because this pushback in particular by these Taliban-affiliated clerics is unprecedented. And so analysts say nobody knows what will happen next. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.