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Some Afghans resist women's education

August 2002

By Paisley Dodds
PANJWAI, Afghanistan -- With only weeks to go before the start of a new term, just 9 percent of school-age girls in southern Afghanistan have registered for classes, compared with almost half in the capital Kabul, an education official said Tuesday.

Convincing parents of the need to educate their daughters is a challenge all over Afghanistan. However, it's especially difficult in the south,the home of the traditionalist Pashtun community and once the stronghold of the conservative Taliban.

"This is old Taliban territory," said Mohammed Dawood Barak, an Education Ministry official in charge of the country's southern provinces. "So it's going to take a while for things to change."

Barak said authorities had not finished compiling statistics on the number of boys enrolled, but Afghan families are generally more eager to educate sons than daughters.

Officials and educators said enrollment of girls has been poor despite door-to-door campaigns and radio announcements in some areas urging parents to sign their children up for classes, which start on staggered dates next month.

They blame a culture where women lack any real power, and which views education as the province of men.

Bibi Jan, a mother of nine children and herself illiterate, said her husband won't allow their four daughters to go to school because he thinks only boys should be educated.

"When I was a kid I thought maybe I would be allowed to go to school, but the men in my family didn't give me permission," said Jan, in her 30s and dressed head-to-toe in a powder-blue burqa. "I want my girls to get an education but my husband won't allow it. That's how things are here."

Many rural and small-town Afghans have never accepted education of women. During the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, many Afghans believed the Russians intended to corrupt their women. Women were kept at home, and girls forbidden from attending schools.

Educators say similar suspicions undermine today's back-to-school campaign. "In May, people pasted leaflets on the school that said the infidels were trying to corrupt the youth of Afghanistan and that parents should resist sending their children to school," said Mohammed Wali, headmaster for the Shamsudin Kakar girls' school in Panjwai, a town about an hour west of Kandahar, the south's largest city. Not a single girl has registered for classes at the school, he said. "We need female teachers but they are afraid to come," said Wali.

Even Barak, the education official, travels with two armed guards because of death threats for supporting girls' education and making other broad reforms.

Mohibullah Zawuddin, a 30-year-old shop owner in Panjwai, displays the type of stubborn beliefs educators are up against.

"I will never allow my girls to go to school," said Zawuddin, who has two daughters, 7 and 8. "Islam says women should not be allowed outside. The boys need education so they can work or serve the country but the girls will be married soon. They don't need it."

Last month, UNICEF released its own statistics showing that of the 159,159 students who had registered for primary and secondary schools in the country's five southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Uruzgan and Nimroz, only 16,604 were girls.

In Kandahar, only 8,061 of the 60,420 registered students were girls, it said. By contrast, Barak, the Education Ministry official, said about 45 percent of school-aged girls in Kabul have registered for classes.

Still, Douglas Higgins, the head of UNICEF's Kandahar office said many have embraced change in the south and that educating women is possible.

UNICEF resumed full operations in Kandahar this year, after the Taliban expelled its local head in 1997 because of its gender policies. The agency is providing southern schools with more than a half million books and hundreds of tents to handle the increase in students, many of them returning refugees.

"In the refugee camp in Iran, I couldn't study so I came here to try to learn before I start school next month," said 9-year-old Nahid Hikmatullah, who's learning to read at Kandahar Women's Association which reopened only months ago. "I want to be a doctor."

The association teaches first to third grade-levels of reading and math - to girls and women whose ages range from 9 to 79.

"I had to wait until my husband died before I was able to come to school," said Bibi Zara, 79, her withered hands clasping a first grade-level textbook.

But even if girls start registering for classes, there aren't enough classrooms to accommodate them. Coed classes are only offered at the primary school level. Out of the 275 schools of all levels in Kandahar province alone, less than a dozen are girls schools.

"We are basically starting our education system from scratch," said Barak, the local education minister.

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