Thursday, May 7, 2009


Schools for girls have never been plentiful in Kandahar. (Find Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson's NPR report on girls' education in Kandahar here.)

Some blame this on the Pashtun honor code, known as Pashtunwali, a male-dominated tradition that, among other things, advocates "protecting" women. Especially in rural areas, this generally keeps women at home, covered and away from the prying eyes of unrelated males. A family's honor is only as pure as its women's virtue. However, there are also economic factors--some families simply can't afford to send their children to school. Added to this are three decades of war and general lack of security throughout Afghanistan. Sometimes, it's just not safe to go anywhere. Unfortunately, this all means that many girls are not allowed by their families to go to school and never get the opportunity to learn to read, write or realize their full human potential.

The years under the Taliban's strict reign did not help matters. A sort of Pashtunwali on Islamic steroids, the Taliban institutionalized women's existence to roughly around the Dark Ages. A list of restrictions imposed on women by the Taliban published online by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) includes the prohibition of women's education, work outside the home, and any activity outside the home unaccompanied by a close male relative. (Afghanistan has always been a conservative place. Women have been wearing burqas for centuries. RAWA also notes that many of the restrictions on their list were first put into practice during the time of Ahmed Shah Massoud's government from 1992-1996, before the Taliban came to power.)

Billions of dollars in aid have poured into Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Some of this money has been earmarked specifically for girls' education. In the past eight years, girls' schools have been built, teachers have been trained and girls' school enrollment has increased even in Kandahar, although it still lags behind much of the rest of the country, according to Afghanistan's education minister.

In the past couple of years, security in Kandahar has deteriorated, and with that, gains in women's education have slid backwards. A number of acid attacks on school girls, threats on students and teachers, and the very real fear of assassination of anyone willing to speak out for women's rights or human rights, have contributed to a drastic decrease in girls' enrollment at public schools.

So, what did women do when the Taliban closed girls' schools in the late 1990's? They formed secret schools in people's homes, of course! Hundreds of literacy programs and schools for girls and women have sprung up in Kandahar city homes.

Marzia, 17, teaches the first grade to a group of girls and women aged 14-40 in the courtyard of her Kandahar home. She was teaching as part of a World Food Program (WFP) and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) program that exchanges women's participation in the 10-month long class for monthly food rations.

More than 400 micro-schools exist in Kandahar just through the WFP/CIDA program. There are hundreds of home schools in Afghanistan founded through other non-governmental organization like these. And who knows how many more informal schools and tutoring programs operate in secret?

A student answers questions about the Dari alphabet at the front of the class.

All of the women wore burqas for our visit, except Marzia, the teacher. She refused to cover her face or hide her identity. She told us that she strongly believes in serving her country and that her faith in God gives her courage and strength to continue this work.

The women were sheltered from the sun by a plastic blue tarp overhead.

Two young women whisper during the lesson.

A student recites letters of the Dari alphabet while the rest of class repeats after her.

Hands folded, a woman listens.

A woman peeks over the wall separating her house from the class next door.

The youngest student in the class, a 14-year-old.

Tents pitched in the courtyard serve as classrooms for overcrowded Mirwais School for Girls. On Nov. 12, 2008, men on motorcycles splashed acid on 11 students and four teachers as they walked to the school.

Shamsia Husseini, 17, shown in her Dari class, is the only one of those attacked who has returned to school.

The older girls in Shamsia's class are still very much afraid. They also expressed anger and hostility at the many foreigners who came to talk to them, but who were unable to help make their lives safer. They questioned how such a thing could happen with so many foreign soldiers in Kandahar; did the Americans just not care about them? (I should note here that most Afghans don't make a distinction between the Americans and other armies--German, Canadian or anyone else. All of the soldiers are American.)

A student clears the chalkboard at the front of a classroom.

Girls chatter and mill about during a break between classes.

Three students share a textbook during class in a tent outside the main building.