The Taliban’s war on women’s education

23 Oct 2008 12:48:00 GMT

Written by: Mustafa Qadri

For well over a decade the Taliban have been known for their strong opposition to the participation of women in public life. Their rule over most of Afghanistan until 2001 was marked by a complete prohibition on women in the workforce or at educational facilities either as teachers or students.

One of the most noticeable features of the past two years of conflict involving the Taliban in tribal Pakistan, particularly in Waziristan and Swat, has been the Islamic movement’s response to the role of women in society.

In July, an umbrella network of Pakistan’s Taliban movements, Tehreek-e-Islami Taliban, posted warnings in parts of Punjab threatening that women who did not wear the hijab would have acid thrown in their faces.

Since militants of pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah established their own government in Swat in October 2007, over 100 girls’ schools have been destroyed. Just last week, militants blew up another girls’ school in the Mingora district of Swat.

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the fighting in Swat and other north-western tribal regions has forced 20,000 people to take the unprecedented step of fleeing Pakistan for Afghanistan.

But Mullah Noor Allam, a spokesman for the Taliban in Swat, says the militant group is not responsible for destroying the schools.

“We did not burn schools in Swat, that was someone else, probably splinter groups. They certainly do not fight for Maulana Fazlullah,” he told me.

“In fact we support women having an education, such as nurses and doctors. But there are some fields a woman should not work, like the armed forces and engineering.”

The Pakistan Taliban movement blames “foreign elements” for the school burnings which they say have been calculated to discredit them as a political movement.

“We don’t oppose education for women, but (we) want a favourable environment for them. We don’t want Western-style co-education without dupata (veil),” Noor Allam said.

Whether or not the Taliban is responsible for all the attacks, the destruction of schools has had a deep psychological impact on women throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas, even in regions not controlled by the Taliban.

“There are no Taliban here (but) I’m afraid to go to school,” explains 10-year-old Serish, a student at Chukdar High School in the Kurz area of Dir Agency, a tribal area controlled by the government that lies a half hour drive south of Swat. “What if they burn the classroom while we are inside?”

“We’re all very scared”

Although Dir has remained relatively peaceful it sits between two regions, Bajaur and Swat, where there’s intense fighting between the Pakistan army and pro-Taliban militias.

“Once a young man jumped into our class with his face covered. We all screamed in panic, we thought he was Taliban,” recalls Mrs Nizhad, who teaches fine art at Chukdar. “In the end it was just a local boy doing some silly practical joke but he got us very worried.

“I’ve been teaching for nine years and I’ve never felt this scared,” she says. “I don’t enjoy my job very much anymore. After the school burnings (in Swat) we have all been very scared.”

Sara, a high school student from Swat now living in Kurz Dir, says she doesn’t know who is trying to stop girls going to school.

“The conflicts in Bajaur and Swat will only be stopped if the terrorism is eliminated. But to do that (the Pakistan authorities) need to address the root causes,” she adds.

Sara complains that the most difficult thing about life is going outside to work “especially because you have to wear the burkha and there are strict rules (about where women can go and with whom)”.

Women’s educational facilities have never been particularly good in the tribal agencies that make up much of Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan. The female literacy rate for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which include Waziristan and Bajaur, is believed to be as low as 3 percent.

In 2005, in neighbouring North West Frontier Province, only 25 percent of the female population had ever attended school and very few women were in gainful employment. That was before the Taliban insurgency emerged. The participation rate is believed to be even lower now due to the conflict. According to Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Statistics, the female literacy rate in Dir is only 24 percent, half what it is nationally.

Sadly, these figures are but one symptom of underdeveloped, male-dominated societies in which women have few opportunities outside family life.

“It’s hard for a woman to go outside (for work) and there aren’t many opportunities,” says Ruksana, a mother of four from Timagara, just below war-torn Bajaur.

“I believe it is important that girls get an education. Women are ignored here (in Dir)… not in every way but especially in (their) share of property, education and there are no facilities (for women) from the government,” she adds.

Serish’s mother says she wants her daughter to train as a doctor. “I want her to become a gynaecologist, because we don’t have anything like that here. Most of us did not have access to a doctor during birth … it causes complications for many women.”

Yet most girls cannot complete their education due to a lack of tertiary institutions in tribal regions like Kurz Dir. Local traditions are also an impediment, as girls who wish to go to college and university must leave their homes and board. Parents are generally reluctant to send their daughters away – there is a stigma attached to unmarried girls and women living outside the home.

Male educational facilities, however, are little better.

“I’ve been a teacher for five years now and no one (from the government) has ever come to see how the school is running,” says Shariar Khan a teacher at a boys’ primary in Kurz Dir. He says he can’t make a living as a teacher and has been forced to find extra income through farming.

With teachers’ pay far from adequate and schools so woefully underfunded many locals query whether children can get an adequate education here.

“Sometimes, they get older students to teach us,” bemoans Salman, a fifth grade student. “My teachers are more worried about tea and paratta (bread).”

Reuters and AlertNet are not responsible for the content of this article or for any external internet sites. The views expressed are the author’s alone.

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