Afghan Girls, Back in the Shadows
Home Classes Proliferate as Anti-Government Insurgents Step Up Attacks on Schools

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."

Gul Khanum, 11, said her parents were farmers who could not read, but that she hoped one day to become a doctor. Nazia, 10, stood to recite in Pashto a poem about nature, speaking nervously but without a hitch. Afterward, she said she had learned to read at home but had not attended school before.

"Before, we were just sitting in the dust," she said. "Now we have desks and chairs and a roof. This is much better."

In the remote and rugged northwest provinces, the international nonprofit agency Save the Children has been working closely with education officials to promote schooling for girls. Its field workers sponsor mobile lending libraries and meet with parents to talk about the benefits of having girls stay in school, delay marriage and produce fewer children.

"Every kid in Afghanistan has been affected by conflict, but you still have to try and educate them. It can't just stop," said Leslie Wilson, who directs the Afghan office of Save the Children. In Sar-e Pol province, she said, there are three times more girls in school than there were three years ago. "It's still a drop in the bucket, but it's progress," she said.

Where public schools are either too distant or too dangerous for girls to attend, hundreds of communities have turned to private home schools, many of them sponsored by the nonprofit Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, the committee operated inconspicuous home schools in many provinces. With the revival of the Taliban threat, they are again becoming an important alternative.

In the central province of Wardak, the main highway was crowded last week with boys on bicycles traveling back and forth to a large high school. But school officials said not even they were safe from attack now. In one village hidden among the brown, rocky hills, the only boys' school was heavily damaged by a bomb six months ago, and teachers said some students had stopped attending.

"It happened at three in the morning," said Syed Hassan, 46, a math teacher. "When we came running, the windows were all shattered and the pages of books were scattered on the ground, even our holy Korans.

"If our people do not get educated, it will be a disaster for our country," he added. "We see how far ahead other countries are getting, and we are just falling farther behind."

To keep girls in class, many villages in Wardak have opened home schools, but despite security precautions, some of them have come under attack. Sulieman, who is also the headmaster of a boys' high school, took a journalist to visit several home schools where girls were studying Pashto, Islamic subjects, art and math.

In one village, a three-room home school was crammed with students, but another had recently closed after being attacked by arsonists. Officials said five girls had switched to the first school but the others had stopped attending altogether.

Sulieman said the arson was not necessarily the work of insurgents, noting that there are intense rivalries for contracts to run home schools now and that sometimes "personal enmities" lead to violence.

But he said the Taliban threat also existed and that he had used various strategies to keep his home school safe.

"Once I was walking late in my village, when three Taliban came along and warned me to stop educating girls," he said. "I told them the Koran says girls should be educated as well as boys, and that my school was teaching young girls to memorize the Koran and pray five times a day. They seemed convinced, and went on their way."

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