Afghan Girls, Back in the Shadows

Girls are taught at a home in a village in Wardak province. Taliban attacks have targeted dozens of schools in the past year, especially those teaching girls.
Girls are taught at a home in a village in Wardak province. Taliban attacks have targeted dozens of schools in the past year, especially those teaching girls. (Photos By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 23, 2006

SHEIKHABAD, Afghanistan -- In a small, sunlit parlor last week, 20 little girls seated on rush mats sketched a flower drawn on the blackboard. In a darker interior room, 15 slightly older girls memorized passages from the Koran, reciting aloud. Upstairs was a class of teenage girls, hidden from public view.

The location of the mud-walled home school is semi-secret. Its students include five girls who once attended another home school nearby that was torched three months ago. The very existence of home-based classes is a direct challenge to anti-government insurgents who have attacked dozens of schools across Afghanistan in the past year, especially those that teach girls.

"We are scared. All the home schools are scared. If I even hear a dog bark, I don't open the gate. I go up on the roof to see who is there," said Mohammed Sulieman, 49, who operates home schools for girls in several villages in the Sheikhabad district of Wardak province.

Children's education was once touted as an exceptional success in this struggling new democracy. Within two years of the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, an extremist Islamic movement that banned girls' education and emphasized Islamic studies for boys, officials boasted that 5.1 million children of both sexes were enrolled in public schools. These included hundreds of village tent-schools erected by UNICEF.

Now that positive tide has come to a halt in several provinces where Taliban insurgents are aggressively battling NATO and U.S. troops, and has slowed dramatically in many other parts of the country. President Hamid Karzai told audiences in New York this week that about 200,000 Afghan children had been forced out of school this year by threats and physical attacks.

According to UNICEF, 106 attacks or threats against schools occurred from January to August, with incidents in 31 Afghan provinces. They included one missile attack, 11 explosions, 50 burnings and 37 threats. In the four southern provinces under serious assault by Taliban forces, UNICEF said, nearly half of the 748 schools have stopped operating.

"With all that the children of Afghanistan have gone through, to expose them to this kind of violence is appalling," Bernt Aasen, the UNICEF representative here, said in a recent statement. He warned that the country's progress in education could be reversed, adding that the attacks "undermine the very fabric of the future of Afghan society."

In the southern province of Kandahar, all schools are now closed in five districts. Attackers have thrown hand grenades through school windows and threatened to throw acid on girls who attend school. In neighboring Helmand province, a high school principal was beheaded, a teacher was killed by gunmen on motorbikes, and half a dozen schools were burned by arsonists. Three districts in the province have closed all their schools.

During the 1990s, a decade of civil conflict and religious repression, education stagnated across Afghanistan. Many teachers fled the country, and many middle-class families educated their children abroad. For those who remained behind, especially in rural areas, public education became virtually inaccessible, especially for girls. In some areas, female literacy fell to less than 1 percent.

Today, most Afghans appear eager to make up for lost time. Their thirst for knowledge is strong, although public education remains controversial for girls in many rural areas, especially once they reach puberty and are barred by custom from mixing socially with boys. In northern provinces, where the Taliban threat is minimal and tribal customs tend to be more modern, many communities have welcomed foreign offers to build schools for girls.

One such community is the tiny village of Mollai in Parwan province, a lush but impoverished region of rushing streams and green, terraced fields. This summer, the U.S. Army built an eight-room elementary school for 300 girls in Mollai -- the first ever in the area. During a recent visit by a reporter to the third-grade class, every student in the room said she was the first girl in her family to attend public school.

"There are still a few parents who don't want their daughters to come, but we keep talking to them until we satisfy them," said the teacher, Mahmad Agul, 25. "We lack everything here -- paved roads, electrical power, deep wells, clinics. But this school was our highest priority."

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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