Taliban closes girls’ school in Afghanistan; United States has canceled talks with the Taliban

WASHINGTON – The United States said Friday that it has cancelled planned talks in Doha with the Taliban after the hardline Islamist rulers of Afghanistan shut girls  secondary schools.

“We have cancelled some of our engagements, including planned meetings in Doha around the Doha Forum, and have made clear that we see this decision as a potential turning point in our engagement,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter said.

The Taliban, which seized power in August and is eager for international recognition, shut down girls  secondary schools this week just hours after reopening them.

“This decision by the Taliban, if it is not swiftly reversed, will profoundly harm the Afghan people, the country s prospects for economic growth, and the Taliban s ambition to improve their relations with the international community,” Porter told reporters.

“For the sake of Afghanistan s future and the Taliban s relations with the international community we urge the Taliban to live up to their commitments and to their people,” she said.

“We also stand with Afghan girls and their families, who see education as a path to realizing the full potential of Afghanistan s society and economy,” she added.

The Taliban s decision to keep schools shuttered for girls came after a meeting late Tuesday by senior officials in the southern city of Kandahar, the movement s de facto power center and conservative spiritual heartland.

It followed months of work by the international community to address the issue of supporting teacher stipends, and came just as Afghan girls were eagerly heading back to school for the first time in seven months.

–  Major setback  –

When the Taliban returned to power, they promised a softer rule compared with their first regime from 1996 to 2001, which became notorious for human rights abuses.

They claimed to respect women s rights, in line with their interpretation of Islamic sharia law, and said girls would be allowed to study through to university.

But the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on women, effectively banning them from many government jobs, policing what they wear and preventing them from travelling outside of their cities alone.

In a joint statement Thursday the foreign ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Norway and the United States, plus the high representative of the European Union, said the Taliban s decision will harm the group s prospects for legitimacy.

The signatories to the statement notably included Norway, which hosted landmark talks between the Taliban and several Western diplomats in January.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Wednesday that “the denial of education violates the human rights of women and girls,” leaving them “more exposed to violence, poverty and exploitation.”

The head of the UN s educational organization UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, also criticized the Taliban s move, calling it a “major setback.”

“Access to education is a fundamental right. UNESCO reiterates its call: girls must be allowed to return to school without further delay,” she said.

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