Taliban authorities have allowed the reopening of a nongovernment school in the western Afghan province of Herat, where young girls will learn computer coding. The school was closed in the aftermath of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan last year.
More than 350 students have already applied to enroll at the school, but only 200 will be admitted to a one-year graphic design program that will start at the end of September, according to Fereshteh Forough, founder and CEO of Code to Inspire, a nongovernmental organization that runs the first female coding school in Afghanistan.
"On average, our students are 18 to 25 years of age," Forough told VOA, adding that the program's monthly costs of $60 per student plus expenses will be paid by Code to Inspire.
While the NGO has been active in Afghanistan since 2015, it had to renew its registration under the new Taliban regime to reopen the school.
The renewal process was challenging and riddled with bureaucratic hurdles, Forough said, but eventually resulted in a work permit for the NGO and a license to reopen the facility.
Girls' education has seen major setbacks in Afghanistan over the past year, but the school's reopening is not indicative of a change of Taliban policy toward education for women and girls.
It is also unclear what employment and professional growth opportunities will be available for the students after their graduation under a Taliban regime that has severely limited women's work and learning rights.
Girls' robotics team
Last year, nine members of the Afghanistan Girls Robotics Team fled the country after the Taliban seized power, fearing the new regime would deprive them of education and work.
Seven members of the team are still in Qatar pursuing professional training, and two of them have moved to the United States.
'This week, you are all here to propose solutions to transform education to all, but you must not forget those who [are] left behind, those who are not lucky enough to be at school at all," Somaya Faruqi, former captain of the robotics team, told the U.N. General Assembly on Monday. "Show your solidarity with me and millions of Afghan girls.'
Now studying mechanical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Faruqi said most of the team members remain in Afghanistan and are unable to learn and work.
'We are trying to resume our programs and restart in-person trainings for girls inside Afghanistan," Faruqi told VOA, adding that about 70 Afghan girls are currently enrolled in virtual learning classes.
"I want to become a good mechanical engineer and to be able to build the girls' robotics school in Kabul, where I can be a mentor for others," Faruqi said.
New hard-line minister
On Tuesday, the Taliban announced a new acting education minister, Habibullah Agha. Little is known about Agha, his vision for education or what his appointment could bring to a long-standing Taliban ban on secondary education for girls.
A confidant of the Taliban's supreme leader, Agha accused the U.S. of launching a "media cold war against Afghanistan" in a speech on August 10 when he was director of the Kandahar Provincial Council. In a separate speech on August 31, Agha briefly mentioned women's support for the Taliban's war against the U.S., a rare acknowledgment from Taliban leaders.
VOA could not independently verify the veracity of Agha's comments.
The Taliban are globally condemned for their harsh policies against women, including their now yearlong ban on girls' secondary education.
Speaking at an event in support of Afghan women on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban's repression in Afghanistan is hurting not just women but also the entire country in various ways.
"Today, women could contribute $1 billion to Afghanistan's economy if they were simply allowed to," said Blinken, referring to economic losses resulting from gender-based labor restrictions. He said the U.S. was collaborating with Afghan women, civil society groups and private organizations to help Afghan women and girls attain their fundamental rights and acquire opportunities.
One of the poorest countries on Earth, Afghanistan has one of the highest female illiteracy rates in the world, with only 15% of Afghan women able to read and write, according to the United Nations.