Attacks Beset Afghan Girls' Schools
Attacks Beset Afghan Girls' Schools
By: Pamela Constable
Date: September 8, 2003
Source: Constable, Pamela. "Attacks Beset Afghan Girls" Schools." Washington Post (September 8, 2003).
About the Author: Pamela Constable is the deputy foreign editor for the Washington Post and the author of the book Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia.
In December 2001, the Islamic fundamentalist government in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was removed from power by U.S. forces in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil by Al-Qaeda members. The Taliban—a word that means "seeker" or "student of Islam"—had gained control of Afghanistan in September 1996 and initiated a strict fundamentalist government based on sharia, or Islamic religious law.
For more than five years, the Taliban implemented a series of restrictions on women and girls, including the removal of such rights as voting, access to education and healthcare, and the right to work. In addition, the Taliban required all women to wear a full-length burqa, a garment that covers a woman from head to toe and allows for a small mesh section for the eyes. Women were forbidden to wear white, the official color of the Taliban, or to wear shoes that made noise. Any woman who appeared in public without a male relative as an escort could be beaten and in homes where women lived, windows had to be painted. In 1997, the Taliban segregated hospitals by sex, forcing hundreds of thousands of women and children to lose access to health care, which in turn drove the infant and maternal mortality rates to new highs.
The Taliban made female education illegal; in late 2001, when President Hamid Karzai gained power, he pledged to reverse the Taliban's policy on female education, noting that "We are fully committed to the education of our girls, as all the international experience has demonstrated the return of investing in girls" education. We will ensure active participation of Afghan women in all spheres of reconstruction." Under the new president's administration, schools reopened, welcoming girls, and, by 2002, more than three million boys and girls were enrolled in schools, with reconstruction and new construction of schools a stated priority for the new government.
As the schools opened and welcomed girls, however, the reaction to such change was not unanimously favorable. Taliban loyalists and other fundamentalists targeted girl's schools for attacks. As this source notes, the resumption of female education was not simple.
Zahidabad, Afghanistan— It was little more than a shed, with no chairs or desks. But for the 50 girls who had studied there since April, the two-room school in this pastoral pocket of Logar province was all that stood between a lifetime of ignorance and a glimmer of knowledge.
Now, the doors have been padlocked, the teacher says he is too scared to return, and the former students are back to their customary chores—pumping water at the village well, weeding onion fields and carrying loads of animal fodder on their heads.
That may be exactly what the unknown assailants had in mind when they broke into the shed late at night 10 days ago, doused the classrooms with fuel and set them afire, leaving behind leaflets in the Dari language warning that girls should not go to school and that teachers should not teach them.
"When I was walking home today, the little girls followed me and asked when they could go back to school, but I am not ready to teach them again because I am afraid for my own safety," confided Fazel Ahmed, 39, the school's only teacher. "I'm very upset. These students will make the future of our community and our country."
The attack was followed two days later by the midnight burning of three tents used as classrooms outside another school in Logar province. According to officials of UNICEF, which is helping to revive the country's long-neglected education system, there have been 18 incidents of school sabotage nationwide in the past 18 months, often accompanied by similar warnings.
The assailants could be from the Taliban, the former Islamic government that opposed girls" education as morally corrupting, and whose armed supporters recently have been regrouping. Or they could be from another of the conservative Islamic groups that once fought the Taliban but are now plotting a political comeback as guardians of religious purity.
Whoever they are, said school officials in Logar and education experts in Kabul, the capital, their goal is clearly to undermine Afghanistan's emergence into the modern world after 25 years of military conflict and religious repression that paralyzed its development in every sphere—particularly the emancipation of women.
And yet everyone involved in Afghan education—from village elders to foreign charities—insists that such tactics cannot slow the extraordinarily swift and widespread revival of girls" education that has taken place since the Taliban were defeated and replaced by a U.S.-backed government under President Hamid Karzai in December 2001.
"We have 4.2 million children in 7,000 schools now, and a 37 percent increase in the number of girls in school since last year," said Sharad Sapra, the UNICEF director for Afghanistan.
The increase amounts to 400,000 more girls in school this year. "There is concern that these sporadic incidents should not become a wave, but almost everyone wants their daughters to go to school, and overall, people do not seem to be intimidated," said Sapra.
The second Logar province school to be attacked, a primary school in the village of Mogul Khel where girls and boys study in separate shifts and separate areas, has already achieved national fame because of its resistance to the threat. Karzai, speaking at a news conference in Kabul on Sunday with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, noted proudly that almost all students and teachers there had returned to class the day after the attack.
On Saturday, classes were in full, noisy swing, if in hastily improvised settings. Groups of boys recited their multiplication tables in unison, sitting on the playground next to the burned tents. Groups of girls huddled on straw mats in the front lobby, reading their Pashto language lessons from a portable blackboard.
"We do not know who these saboteurs are, but our school is the cradle of education in Logar, and we will defend it," said Mahmoud Ayub Saber, 50, the principal, who returned home last year after waiting out the Taliban era in Pakistan. "If some girls were occasionally absent before this happened, their parents are saying from now on none of their daughters will miss a single day."
Education Ministry officials in Kabul said they were determined to ensure the success of girls" education, but they acknowledged that they had limited resources to physically protect schools, and they noted with alarm that a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism was challenging the modernizing policies of the Karzai government.
"Our society is going through many changes, and there are fundamentalists who want to resist this change," said Ashrak Hossaini, deputy minister of education. "We are trying to move to a modern and civilized stage, and girls" schools are attacked because they represent this movement. We must not only provide physical protection, but also prepare the people mentally for these changes."
While there seems to be near-universal public support for girls" elementary school education, the idea of female study beyond sixth grade is far more controversial, particularly in traditional, rural areas steeped in social and gender taboos that existed long before the Taliban took power in 1996.
In the relatively prosperous Logar province, there are hundreds of schools that teach boys and girls up to sixth grade, but very few higher-level schools for girls. Co-education is out of the question in conservative Afghan society, and most parents do not want their adolescent daughters attending even an all-female high school if it is not in or close to their village.
"In our district, there is no opportunity for girls to go beyond the fifth class," said Saber, the Mogul Khel principal. "After that, most of them get married and have no need to continue their educations." He said education officials in Kabul had ordered a girls" high school to be built in Logar, but community elders opposed it because students would be required to travel some distance from their homes.
By turning schools into social service centers where people receive vaccinations, register births and even pump well water, Sapra said, the idea of education can become an integral part of village life. But in villages such as Zahidabad, where the two-room girls" school was built last spring, the most serious obstacle to education today is fear.
"We are all afraid of these bad people. We are Muslims, and we fear for the honor of our daughters," said Shah Agha, 50, a water and power department worker in Zahidabad whose 12-year-old daughter attended the village school until last week.
"We were very happy when this school opened, but one morning we went to pray, and we found it was all burned," he said. "Unless the government brings us more security, we cannot let our daughters go back there."
As attacks on girls and girls" schools increased, female enrollment dropped. While many attacks involve vandalism and damage to the school buildings, other attacks include direct threats and intimidation to known female enrollees, physical attacks on girls and their families, and direct violence against teachers. In many instances, girls" schools are set on fire and destroyed while boys" schools next door are left untouched.
By 2005, more than five million children were enrolled in Afghan schools and more than forty percent were girls. UNICEF estimates that in spite of this change in female enrollment, nearly sixty percent of all girls under the age of eleven in Afghanistan are not enrolled in school, unable to access education due to parental choice, physical threats and intimidation from outside sources, the distance of schools from homes, or the need to work to bring in income.
U.S. President George W. Bush and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, in a joint press conference held on May 23, 2005, discussed the issue of female education in Afghanistan as part of a diplomatic meeting. President Bush noted that "Over 40 percent of the voters on that October day [the first elections in Afghanistan after the end of Taliban rule] were women voters. Girls are now going to school. Women entrepreneurs are opening businesses. The president was telling me that there's quite a number of candidates who filed for the upcoming legislative elections who are women." At the same time, according to UNICEF's Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah, "One in five children in this country do not survive long enough even to reach school age. Others will drop out of school, to support their families. This is a tragedy that threatens progress made in recent years."
In January 2006, Malim Abdul Habib, the headmaster of the Shaikh Mathi Baba high school in Zabul, Afghanistan, was stabbed and beheaded by Taliban sympathizers. Prominent Afghan Muslim clerics have publicly stated that there is no justification in the Koran or in other Islamic writing for banning female education, and support in Afghanistan for basic female education is overwhelming. Some surveys show that ninety percent of Afghan adults agree that girls should be permitted to attend school. According to UNICEF, literacy rates for women are as low as three to four percent in rural areas, and only approximately thirty percent of men in Afghanistan as a whole are literate.
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