Bringing Hope--and Homework--to the Girls

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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 Zareen.

These 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.

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.