By Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield
KABUL (Reuters) - Many Afghans are following news of a reversal in girls' school openings in eastern Paktia province for clues on whether the Taliban will loosen restrictions on girls' education after reneging on a pledge to reopen high schools in March.
Some girls' secondary schools in what is considered a conservative part of the country quietly reopened in recent weeks, and local officials last week acknowledged classes had resumed. News spread quickly through local news reports and social media.
But Taliban authorities said there had been no formal approval for such a move. According to three Taliban sources and some locals, the schools were shut again.
Local media broadcast footage of girls in Paktia protesting the move, a rare sign of dissent in a country where women's access to public life has been severely curtailed since the hardline Islamist group returned to power over a year ago.
"THE CLOSURE HAS MADE US MORE HOPELESS"
Some girls outside of Paktia expressed concern to Reuters at the latest reversal, with some in areas where schools are open fearing their secondary schools could also be shut down.
In the 20 years between Taliban administrations, girls' schools opened for all ages and women were able to work more freely, particularly in urban areas.
"When we were informed about schools reopening in Paktia, we became hopeful for future again," said Muska, a student who was due to enter her final year of school in the northeastern province of Nangarhar, where girls' high schools are shut.
"But the closure has made us more hopeless," said Muska, who gave only her first name in order to speak freely about a sensitive subject.
TALIBAN'S PLANS ON GIRLS' EDUCATION UNCLEAR
The Taliban have declared they respect everyone's rights within their interpretation of Islamic law. The group also says it is working on a plan for girls' secondary education but have not given a time frame.
When asked about the events in Paktia and how Afghans were interpreting them, Taliban deputy spokesperson Bilal Karimi said the procedure for opening girls' schools was under review.
"We are hopeful all problems will be solved in our country," he said.
Some within the Taliban have said they support girls' secondary education. Universities remain open to female students so long as classes are separated by gender, and primary schools are open for all children.
The Taliban's acting education minister Noorullah Munir, in response to local media's questions last week on whether girls' schools would open, implied some Afghans did not want girls in their late teens to attend school.
"If you go to a mosque and ask the elders about their 16- and 17-year-old girls going to school, I am sure there won't be need to ask me the question. You will find the answer, we are living in Afghanistan and we know well about Afghan customs," he said in footage broadcast by Tolo News.
Mohammad Maroufi, a tribal elder in the southern province of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, said some local elders had been watching events in Paktia and hoped schools would open soon.
"We want school for girls. It is not my demand, it is the demand of the nation, education is Islamic and a human right. This right has been given by Islam," he told Reuters.
"Like Paktia, the people of Kandahar will also stand up for girls' education ... we ask the Islamic Emirate to open the girls schools," he said, referring to the Taliban's administration.
(Reporting by Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Josie Kao)