By Charlotte Greenfield
KABUL (Reuters) -The Taliban on Wednesday backtracked on their announcement that high schools would open for girls, saying they would remain closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law for them to reopen.
The u-turn took many by surprise, leaving students in tears and drawing condemnation from humanitarian agencies, rights groups and diplomats at a time when the Taliban administration is seeking international recognition.
Teachers and students from three high schools around the capital Kabul said girls had returned in excitement to campuses on Wednesday morning, but were ordered to go home. They said many students left in tears.
"We all became totally hopeless when the principal told us, she was also crying," said a student, not being named for security reasons.
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, they banned female education and most employment.
The international community has made the education of girls a key demand for any future recognition of the Taliban administration, which took over the country in August as foreign forces withdrew.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Taliban's decision was "a profound disappointment and deeply damaging for Afghanistan."
"The denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls to education," Guterres said in a statement. "I urge the Taliban de facto authorities to open schools for all students without any further delay."
The Ministry of Education had announced last week that schools for all students, including girls, would open around the country on Wednesday after months of restrictions on education for high school-aged girls.
On Tuesday evening a Ministry of Education spokesman released a video congratulating all students on their returning to class.
However, on Wednesday, a Ministry of Education notice said schools for girls would be closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture, according to Bakhtar News, a government news agency.
Suhail Shaheen, a senior Taliban member based in Doha, said the postponed opening of girls' schools was due to a technical issue and the Ministry of Education was working on standardised uniforms for students around the country.
"We hope the uniform issue is resolved and finalised as soon as possible," he said.
Sixteen-year-old Khadija went to school on Wednesday having stayed up all night in excitement after seven months at home. But just minutes after lining up with her classmates for a welcoming speech, the school's assistant manager instead approached the students, crying, and broke the news they had to leave.
"We couldn't believe we face such conditions... it was like a mourning day. Everyone was crying and hugging each other," she said.
Returning home, she unpacked her books from her bag and tried to imagine how she could stay motivated, by teaching younger children in her neighbourhood to help her remember her lessons. Still, she said the disappointment was hard to overcome.
"I would like to be a doctor in the future but for now I have no hope, I am like a dead body," she said.
Local media broadcast footage of girls holding a protest in Kabul.
Many in the international community condemned the decision with the U.N.'s special envoy for Afghanistan formally conveying the organisation's "grave concern and disappointment" to Taliban officials, according to a U.N. statement.
The Taliban is seeking to run the country according to its interpretation of Islamic law while at the same time accessing billions of dollars in aid that it desperately needs to stave off widespread poverty.
"For the sake of the country's future and its relations with the international community, I would urge the Taliban to live up to their commitments to their people," U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Tom West, said in a tweet.
(Reporting by Kabul Newsroom and Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by Gibran Peshimam and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Michael Perry, Alexandra Hudson and Jonathan Oatis)