The Taliban ordered girls' secondary schools in Afghanistan to shut today just hours after they reopened, sparking heartbreak and confusion over the policy reversal by the hardline Islamist group.
The U-turn was announced after thousands of girls resumed lessons for the first time since August, when the Taliban seized control of the country and imposed harsh restrictions on women.
The education ministry offered no coherent explanation even as officials held a ceremony in the capital to mark the start of the academic year, saying it was a matter for the country's leadership.
"In Afghanistan, especially in the villages, the mindsets are not ready," spokesman Aziz Ahmad Rayan told reporters.
"We have some cultural restrictions... but the main spokesmen of the Islamic Emirate will offer better clarifications."
A Taliban source said the decision came after a meeting late yesterday by senior officials in the southern city of Kandahar, the movement's de facto power centre and conservative spiritual heartland.
Today's date for girls to resume school had been announced weeks earlier by the ministry, with the spokesman saying the Taliban had a "responsibility to provide education and other facilities to our students".
They insisted that pupils aged 12 to 19 would be segregated, even though most Afghan schools are already same-sex, and operate according to Islamic principles.
Crestfallen girls at Zarghona High School in the capital, Kabul, tearfully packed up their belongings after teachers halted the lesson.
"I see my students crying and reluctant to leave classes," said Palwasha, a teacher at Omara Khan girls' school in Kabul.
"It is very painful to see them crying."
US special envoy to Afghanistan Rina Amiri tweeted the move "weakens confidence in the Taliban commitments" and "further dashes the hopes of families for a better future for their daughters".
Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who survived a Pakistani Taliban assassination attempt when she was 15-years-old and has long campaigned for girls' education, also expressed dismay.
"They will keep finding excuses to stop girls from learning - because they are afraid of educated girls and empowered women," she said on Twitter.
There were fears that, after seizing control, the Taliban would shut down all formal education for girls -- as they did during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
At the time of the takeover, schools were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Boys and younger girls were allowed to resume classes two months later, raising hopes they had softened their stance.
The international community has made the right to education for all a sticking point in negotiations over aid and recognition of the new Taliban regime, with several nations and organisations offering to pay teachers.
Students from Sadar Kabuli Girls High School staged protests after they were told to leave, witnesses and activists said.
"They left after the Taliban came and told them to go home. It was a peaceful protest," a shopkeeper in the area said.
Girls sent home for 'not wearing correct hijab'
Afghan Women's Network co-founder Mahbouba Seraj said the girls were told they were being sent home because they were not wearing the correct hijab.
Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, she said the girls "put all of their hope and their heart and their mind and their wishes into one basket and … they were thinking that they are going to go back to school and it was just taken away from them".
Ms Seraj said she was not surprised that the Taliban has taken this decision, but she did not expect that they would be so "unthinking" about this.
She said that educating girls is "not against Islam, not against the rights of women, not against anything in [the] Quran".
Ms Seraj said she did not think that the Taliban would go this far and "for this silly reason" and it proves that they will always do these types of things "all the time".