When the first snows started to melt in March, schoolchildren in towns and villages across Afghanistan put on fresh uniforms, strapped satchels across their backs and headed off for a new semester. Despite disruptions in education from more than twenty years of fighting and civil war, education remains a high priority for Afghan parents. But in the capital city of Kabul, the new school year brought a surprise. For the past three years only little boys were seen walking, or hitching a ride on the back of a bicycle, to school. This year young girls joined them, accompanied by their mothers.
Cracks in the Taliban Ban
Was the strict ban on female education imposed by the Taliban authorities who seized power here in the fall of 1996 softening? Girls up to high school age may attend informal schools that are private or funded by international organizations. In early June, supreme leader Mullah Omar issued an edict allowing for the expansion of mosque schools for young boys and girls. The mosque schools are apparently little more than a substitute acceptable to clerics and hard-line officials for state-run schools, as they offer the same curriculum. In Kabul, considered in direst need of moral reform by the Taliban, authorities keep close watch on the officially sanctioned primary and secondary education for girls in mosque schools, and obstruct informal home tutoring.
Many female teachers sacked from their jobs in the state schools after the Taliban takeover have attempted to teach girls in their homes. In Kabul, they must register with the dreaded Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a kind of religious police charged with enforcing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s code of behavior. The Ministry’s young men roam the streets in groups of four or five, sometimes beating “indecently dressed” women with small whips, or hauling in men suspected of having trimmed their beards. They have detained women for teaching teenage girls in buildings where men were allowed in on one recent occasion. They also arrested 17 men for learning English from a foreign woman, who they claimed was “dancing in class in indecent clothing.” In this oppressive environment, some women are still running classes secretly. Female students are accompanied to class by a male relative, crossing their fingers that they will not be caught.
In the countryside, far from the eyes of the vice and virtue men, families can set up home schooling for girls with the support of village elders and tribal leaders. International NGOs help to fund some of this informal education, often with UN support and some form of official approval. The NGOs supply textbooks and blackboards, train teachers and in some cases pay them a salary of about $40 a month, ten times the salary in state-run schools. Where outside aid is not available, each child is charged a tuition fee of 25 cents a month which parents pay in cash or in kind. At the informal school in the village of Khaki Jabar, 30 kilometers south of Kabul, some 18 young boys and girls just returned from refugee camps in Pakistan sat in neat rows on the floor of a tiny room. Their teacher had lost his wife recently, and in return for his efforts, the schoolchildrens’ parents were cooking for him and his little son and cleaning his house.
While state-run schooling for boys is free of charge–some 70,000 boys are enrolled in Kabul province alone–those parents who can afford it also send their sons to the alternative classes. Teachers in the state system earn so little that the level of education has been dropping. Students sometimes get no more than an hour or two a day of instruction. In the informal classes, boys can study the same curricula of Pashto and Dari languages, mathematics, calligraphy, history, geography, Quran and other religious topics taught in the state schools. The alternative textbooks, published in the late 1980s with US academic assistance and reprinted since, recently won the approval of the Taliban authorities and now carry the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. “It’s better for the boys to get extra classes,” said Gul Mohammed, an employee with a foreign aid agency. “It keeps them off the streets, and supplements the teaching they get in the government school.”
But parents who cannot afford the NGO-sponsored schooling still are banned from sending their daughters to the free state-run schools. Women still cannot attend or teach at universities. In some rural regions where conservative traditions held sway throughout the Soviet occupation, girls are kept away from any form of teaching. The Soviet and Afghan communist regimes’ attempts to expand education actually created a backlash–some tribal leaders associate teaching with the enemy, and resist girls’ schooling to this day. But many Afghans lament the days when their daughters could get complete education, days that lasted through the mujahedeen rule of the early 1990s. The mujahedeen also imposed Islamic Sharia law, but were generally less rigid in their interpretations and implementation than the Taliban.
Afghanistan is beleaguered not only by strict edicts and tradition, but also by an economy that is mainly geared to an ongoing war effort. The Taliban authorities are fighting a coalition of opposition forces based in a narrow northeastern strip of the country. They claim they are not against girls’ education, but they cannot afford girls’ schooling in a state of war. Under the Taliban’s vision of Islamic law, schools would have to hold separate classes for girls. The country’s impoverishment is quite evident in the educational sector. Kabul University is a sad shadow of its former self. Set in a pleasant expanse of woods on the outskirts of Kabul, many of its buildings have been damaged and looted. Classes and the main library operate for only three hours a day, a large number of professors fled into exile and the remaining faculty seek other jobs to shore up their shrinking salaries.
Many Afghan and foreign education experts point out that Mullah Omar’s decree permitting girls’ education in mosque schools moves the Taliban further away from opening state-run schools for girls. Many of Kabul’s former state-run girls’ schools are being transformed into all-male institutions. At the Zarghuna Learning Center, once a girls’ high school, some 500 boys study the Quran. “We would like girls to join too, but we are in a state of war and the government cannot afford to pay for girls schools,” said its director Mawlawi Mutawakel. Afghans are conservative, he explained, and prefer to keep their daughters at home. Mutawakel is busy repairing one of the buildings hit by a rocket during the civil war.
Dim But Dauntless Hopes
Clearly the home-based school system enables some Afghan girls to get an education, but it leaves out high school students and poor families who cannot afford tuition fees. Gul Mohammed’s two daughters, aged 14 and 16, have reached the end of the line. “They stay at home now; they cry when we talk about the old school days. My eldest would have graduated in a few years and would have earned an income to help at home.” The girls managed to attend a clandestine English course in a friend’s home, but that soon ended. “They are waiting, every day, waiting for the Taliban to go.” Another little girl came up with an idea to get herself into school. “My seven-year old daughter asked me: ‘Why don’t you dress me up as a boy so that I can go to school too?'” said Yasmine, wife of a guard at what was once the largest girls’ school in Kabul. The war-damaged structure now houses about 100 high school boys. Meanwhile, concerned Afghan parents and international aid workers search for signs of an official change, or the occasional tolerant Taliban.