KABUL—When the Taliban banned girls from going to school in the 1990s, Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil served as the regime’s foreign minister.
Now, Mr. Muttawakil’s daughter attends a school in Kabul—one he set up. “She is in second grade and is one of the top students in her class,” he said proudly, adding that he often helps with homework.
She is one of roughly 250 girls enrolled at the school he opened three years ago along with other former senior Taliban officials who have adopted a more moderate stance in recent years.
Like another co-founder of the school, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, Mr. Muttawakil spent years in U.S. detention after the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001. Both men live under government surveillance in the Afghan capital and neither has renounced the Taliban leadership of Mullah Omar.
Over the past few years, the Taliban leadership, too, has tried to soften its public image as it looks to regain power after U.S.-led coalition forces depart in December. In public statements, the Taliban say they support women’s education, as long as the girls are taught in an Islamic environment.
In this deeply conservative society, many are reluctant to allow their girls to study. While the enrollment of girls in schools has steadily improved since 2001, they still lag behind: around 66% of them attend primary school, compared with 92% of boys, according to 2012 government data. The rate drops to 26% at secondary school, when girls reach puberty and, under tradition, become of marrying age.
This is still a vast improvement from education at the peak of Taliban rule in 1999, when only 6.4% of primary school-aged girls in Afghanistan were receiving some form of education, according to estimates by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“It was founded by religious scholars, so no one can oppose it,” says a female literature teacher at the school who goes by the name of Mrs. Afghani, “This is the only way to promote girls’ education.”
She says the female-only environment has also made it easier for her to persuade her own male relatives to allow her to work.
Wahidullah Najib said he enrolled his children at Afghan School because of its Islamic focus. “I wouldn’t have sent my daughters to school to study along boys,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have kept them home and denied them an education.”