The Taliban have continued their determined path to further restrict women's rights by setting up a new ministry to ensure "virtue and the prevention of vice" where the Ministry of Women's Affairs was once housed in Afghanistan's capital Kabul.
A new sign was up outside the ministry, announcing it was now the "Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.”
The staff of the World Bank's $100 million Women's Economic Empowerment and Rural Development Program, which was run out of the Women's Affairs Ministry, were also escorted off the grounds Saturday, said program member Sharif Akhtar, who was among those being removed.
Mabouba Suraj, who heads the Afghan Women's Network, said she was astounded by the flurry of orders released by the Taliban-run government restricting women and girls.
During their previous rule of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban had denied girls and women the right to education and barred them from public life.
On Friday, the Taliban-run education ministry asked boys from grades six to 12 back to school, starting on Saturday, along with their male teachers. There was no mention of girls in those grades returning to school.
Previously, the Taliban's minister of higher education minister had said girls would be given equal access to education, albeit in gender-segregated settings.
"It is becoming really, really troublesome. ... Is this the stage where the girls are going to be forgotten?” Suraj said. "I know they don’t believe in giving explanations, but explanations are very important.”
Suraj speculated that the contradictory statements perhaps reflect divisions within the Taliban as they seek to consolidate their power, with the more pragmatic within the movement losing out to hard-liners among them, at least for now.
Statements from the Taliban leadership often reflect a willingness to engage with the world, talk of open public spaces for women and girls and protecting Afghanistan's minorities. But orders to its rank and file on the ground are contradictory. Instead of what was promised, restrictions, particularly on women, have been implemented.
Suraj, an Afghan American who returned to Afghanistan in 2003 to promote women's rights and education, said many of her fellow activists have left the country. She said she stayed in an effort to engage with the Taliban and find a middle ground, but until now has not been able to get the hard-line Islamic group's leadership to meet with activists who have remained in the country, to talk with women about the way forward.
"We have to talk. We have to find a middle ground,” she said.
UNESCO's Director-General Audrey Azoulay on Saturday added her voice to the growing concern over the Taliban's limitations on girls after only boys were told to go back to school.
"Should this ban be maintained, it would constitute an important violation of the fundamental right to education for girls and women,” Azoulay said in a statement upon her arrival in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
Sara Seerat, a former advisor to the women's ministry under the previous Afghan government sent a video message to The Associated Press (AP) from her home in Kabul, slamming the Taliban's move to close the ministry. It is "the right of women to work, learn and participate in politics on the national and international stage," said Seerat.
”Unfortunately, in the current Taliban Islamic Emirate government there is no space in the Cabinet. By closing the women's ministry it shows they have no plans in the future to give women their rights or a chance to serve in the government and participate in other affairs."
Earlier this month the Taliban announced an all-male exclusively Taliban Cabinet but said it was an interim setup, offering some hope that a future government would be more inclusive as several of their leaders had promised.