29, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21
Hope--and Homework--to the Girls
By KAREN MAZURKEWICH Kabul
The improvised blackboards are closet doors taken from a teacher's home.
The children sit on kilims laid over the dirt floor. They share tattered,
well-thumbed textbooks. But at least they are learning. In this tiny private
school in Kabul's Shashdarak neighborhood, a few young, dedicated Afghan
women are bringing hope to a classroom full of girls. In January, after
nine months of lobbying, they won permission from the government to open
the doors of Naswan Shashdarak to girls studying in grades one to six.
Theirs is a rare success: with the exception of doctors and nurses, Afghan
women are still banned from working outside the home, and schooling is
prohibited for girls over the age of 12. "We should have the right to
education," says the school's energetic headmistress, 25-year-old Nilab
small, home-based schools run by female teachers--many of whom served
as the backbone of Kabul's public education system before the Taliban
banned them from work--are now flourishing quietly. But even though the
government has begun to make noises about relaxing the ban on female education,
observers remain wary. "So far there has been a lot of talking by the
authorities, but nothing concrete," says unicef representative Louis-Georges
Arsenault. Last year the Taliban opened a showcase religious school for
girls at a mosque in Kabul, but even that was forced to close for several
months after objections from hard-liners. Gentle agitators like Zareen
are taking calculated risks in teaching girls how to count, read and write.
The rusting metal doors of the school compound are kept firmly shut to
avoid prying eyes and informers.
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Female literacy in Afghanistan was never high. Before the 1979 Soviet
invasion, only 1% of women graduated from high school. "People think everything
was perfect before," says Eric Donelli, the unicef representative in Kabul.
"But the Taliban are a product of a culture and a mentality." Modern women
like Zareen have to contend with age-old prejudice as well as the Taliban's
more recent laws.
The United Nations estimates that in Kabul today only a few thousand girls--out
of a total population of 2 million--are receiving some form of schooling.
Despite admirable efforts by individuals like Zareen, some experts question
whether home schools, with their limited curricula, can have much effect.
"It's better than nothing," says Jolyon Leslie, the former U.N. coordinator
for Afghanistan. "But does this constitute a real education?"
The regime appears unwilling to promote official schooling. Only recently
have the Taliban begun to allow a small group of women to finish medical
training at Kabul's military hospital. The program is run by General Suhalia
Siddiq, one of Kabul's best surgeons. The 61-year-old, Russian-trained
doctor does not sit for an interview. She stands and, between questions,
checks on the progress of a hysterectomy and the bandaging of a burn patient.
When she's not hovering over the operating table, Siddiq shares lecturing
duties with 14 other female doctors. She hopes the school within the hospital
is only a temporary measure. "The Taliban tell us that we are in an emergency
situation and that when the situation improves we will work it out," says
Siddiq. "We'll see what happens in practice."
A younger generation of women, taught at places like Naswan Shashdarak,
does not have time to wait. Tamana, 11, has not been to school for four
years. Kneeling with a dozen classmates, she dutifully repeats the alphabet
aloud. Most lessons are recited because students have no pencils. The
room is freezing, but the children do not complain. Each day more line
up to join the 150 girls already there. None will be turned away.
With reporting by Hannah Bloch/Kabul
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