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Going back

'TES'readers are raising funds to help more than 1.5 million children return to school in Afghanistan this month. For girls in particular it is a momentous occasion: banned from school under the Taliban, they and their female teachers spent five years keeping learning alive through a remarkable network of illegal home schools. Andrew Bushell and Kent Page in Kabul talk to the women who, despite the bans and the beatings, refused to relinquish their right to teach. Photographs by Kate Brooks

For the past five years Marena Nawabi has been part of a resistance movement. Marena, a very modern 22-year-old woman who favours trouser suits over skirts and defiantly refuses to consider marriage - she has turned down 16 proposals - is a teacher. In most countries she would be unremarkable, but in Afghanistan her profession marks her out as a rebel.

When the Taliban took control of the country in 1996, it immediately imposed a strict, repressive interpretation of Islamic law. Girls were forbidden from attending school beyond the age of 10 and women - who made up two-thirds of the teaching workforce - were banned from teaching.

The punishment for defiance was severe. Marena remembers: "Once the Taliban came to the house when I was a student and caught us with our books. It was very bad. They chased us and forced us to give up our books. But I had a favourite notebook and tried to hide it under my shawl. A large Talib kept screaming at me to give it up, but I wouldn't so he beat me on my head and shoulders with a shaloq (a long, hard rubber stick about an inch and a half thick) until I gave it up. They beat me for a long time."

For the five years that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, women all over the country refused to give up their right to be educated, and set up secret, illegal schools for girls in their homes. So successful was this underground movement that it is estimated that more girls attended school under the Taliban than all the other post-Russian regimes put together. (A survey conducted by UNICEF at the end of last year found there were nearly 600 home-based schools in Kabul alone.) Now, for the first time in a quarter of a century, education is to become more than a DIY affair in Afghanistan. March 21 has been designated back-to-school day across the country, when the interim authority is hoping to welcome back 1.5 million children to the fledgling education system. For many, the date is largely symbolic; in Kabul children started flocking to school almost as soon as the last Taliban truck had left the city in November. The secret schools have been recruiting openly for months, equipped and funded by local and international non-governmental organisations and UNICEF.

Marena Nawabi 's school is a room in the Mackorayan district of the Afghan capital, Kabul - a relatively wealthy area of the city where the dirt roads have few potholes and old, grey prefabricated apartment buildings from the Russian era still stand. Until a few months ago, the roll stood at 30. Since the Taliban collapsed, numbers have risen so rapidly that the school has spilled over into one of the students' homes.

In the old days, Marena would teach while her mother sat by the window acting as look-out. Her stock cupboard consisted of a handful of textbooks printed in the 1970s, and some notebooks and pens. The curriculum included Persian, English, maths and science. Two groups of students would learn by memorising and reciting for three hours each day.

Marena isn't a qualified teacher, of course. She received no specialist training, and the role she has developed for herself is more peer tutor than teacher. She has been called a teacher for the past two years, but she is really a bright older student helping younger students to catch up.

Hamida Ataie is principal at the Kalai Fahtullah School, a clandestine school supported by a local NGO called Agriculture Construction Development. Under the Taliban the NGO secretly ran over 76 schools attended by 14,620 students, 35 per cent of them girls. Kalai Fahtullah has about 60 students, who attend in two shifts. The students are girls and women of all ages; there is even a 60-year-old woman who is learning to read.

A newly installed blue plaque - "ACD accepts new enrolments" - on the wall above a wooden door is the only sign that this is a school. The wind kicks up dust along the empty street. Hamida Ataie criss-crosses her way through lines of washing strung across a courtyard to reach the school building. Her high cheekbones and carefully groomed face contrast with hands and feet made wrinkled and leathery from years of manual labour under the Taliban; she still does laundry after classes to make extra money.

Hamida's eyes moisten and she plays with her shawl as she recalls how she was beaten by police from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice just one month before the regime fell. "I don't remember where they beat me because I was so scared," she says. "When they broke up another course, they sent the teacher to jail for two days."

Hamida's students would hide their books under their shawls and leave the school in pairs at five-minute intervals to avoid suspicion. Her husband worked outside the door selling cigarettes and candy, keeping an eye out for the Taliban police.

Sheba Haidary is a slim 13-year-old girl with black hair and wide dark brown eyes that flash when she talks of going to school under the Taliban. "When the Taliban came I would hide my books," she says. "My parents told me to be careful, but they caught me twice; once they beat me so badly that I missed school for three weeks." Sheba says she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up so she can protect herself. Shaheeda Jamizada is 15. Like Sheba, she studied in secret for all five years of Taliban rule. "They beat me five times with the shaloq," she says. "Once they held me down and beat me."

Outside the school, Hamida Ataie points to the blue plaque which is already chipped from the sand and dust in the street. She looks proud and satisfied; she can teach her girls in peace.

Habiba Khilwati's modest home is built into the gently inclining rock that sweeps up from the outskirts of Kabul to the mountains encircling the city. It is a desolate area, isolated and seemingly abandoned. But then you notice the piles of small, plastic shoes outside the entrance to Habiba's home and pass under the rug hanging over the doorway that keeps out the wind.

"I am teaching 62 girls and 28 boys in shifts here in my home," says Habiba, a smiling, young woman with a scarf wrapped around her neck. "The living room is no longer for my family, but for the children of the neighbourhood. It's become a learning room for them."

Sitting quietly, cross-legged on mats, the children keep their eyes on Habiba as she goes through some mathematics on the blackboard that leans against the wall at the front of the room. Cloth counting charts and the alphabet hang on the wall.

The children are inadequately dressed for the freezing, midwinter cold of Kabul; some wear jackets and coats, others are in sweaters, but none has a winter hat. Fortunately, in the small confines of the living room, the body heat of the 90 children and their teacher warms the area to a bearable temperature. Those who have no socks seem oblivious to the cold, concentrating on Habiba's lesson.

The boys sit together on the right side of the room and the girls together on the left. "I live together with my brothers and sisters at home," says one girl. "Why shouldn't boys and girls sit together in the same classroom?"

"I've been teaching the neighbourhood children in secret for the past three years," says Habiba. "Now, of course, I can do it in the open without fear of being caught. But it was very dangerous to do so only a few months ago.

"All the parents knew we had to be very careful so no one would notice what was going on. Mothers would hide the children's books in their bags and if anyone asked where they were going they would say they were going to study the holy Koran. The children knew they should arrive one at a time to avoid drawing any attention.

"Once, the district chief found out about a school we ran in another area in a courtyard. He came in shouting and throwing stones at the children who all ran away. We had to shut down the centre and stop teaching for a while before starting up again. Fortunately, we weren't caught again and now, of course, we can teach in peace."

State schools are gradually beginning to readmit girls, too. Naswan No. 12 high school is a plain concrete building pockmarked with bullet holes, with plastic sheets and brown sackcloth fixed across the windows to stop the wind. There is no electricity and water is an occasional luxury that must be pumped from a deep well. Before the Taliban came, more than 270 teachers taught in three shifts at the predominantly girls' school. Now there are only 50 teachers, 40 of them women.

Fawzia Habibi, the principal, has been teaching for over 20 years, the past five in a secret home school. "I was running a school of 65 children," she says, "and we were faced with so many problems and difficulties. On two occasions the Taliban broke into my house and beat me with long rubber rods."

Her family also paid the price. "Once I was out shopping and when I went home there were people standing outside my house and the armed Taliban guards were hitting my daughter. My daughter ran from room to room and they finally cornered her in the kitchen and beat her in the kitchen while the students were screaming. And I could only cry."

There were other times when Fawzia was luckier. "Once, when the Taliban came, I put my books away and told them they were nice people. My girls said they were only getting religious lessons and learning skills like tailoring. When I dream of the things that occurred under the Taliban I cannot sleep and I pray that God will never inflict that upon us again."

Nine of Fawzia's former home-school students are studying at Naswan No. 12. Four of them agree to talk about their experiences, but not in front of their classmates. Fear and suspicion still linger.

The girls are aged between 10 and 13. Halida, 13, says that life used to be "horrible. We were always looking over our shoulder. Always worried. I dreamed that they would come and find me in the middle of the night." She wanted to become a lawyer, but now wants to be a journalist so she can travel to different lands and meet people from different cultures.

Palwasha and Suma, both 12, dream of becoming doctors. With Nazillah, 11, they witnessed the beating of Fawzia Habibi's daughter. Nazillah says:

"They chased her and beat her and tore her clothes as she tried to get away. We could do nothing. We were helpless, but it made us want to go to school even more."

"We want to go to school even more" has become the motto of Afghan girls and women in Kabul since the Taliban tried to deny them an education. And nowhere could this be more important than in this country, where the literacy rate for women is just 4 per cent - the lowest in the world.

See page 31 for Ted Wragg's tips on how to use our Afghan appeal in the classroom

Nothing but war

A recent history of Afghanistan

1978 Communist coup.

1979 Anti-communist forces assassinate president. USSR invades. Islamic mujahideen ("holy warriors") oppose Russian occupation with heavy financial backing from United States and the West.

1989 Russians withdraw after losing 20,000-50,000 troops killed. Pro-Russian President Najibullah remains in power.

1992 Mujahideen enter Kabul, ousting Najibullah. Civil war erupts again as mujahideen split into rival factions. Kabul reduced to rubble.

1996 The Taliban, an extreme faction supported by Pakistan, takes Kabul and introduces fundamentalist Islamic law. Women are forced to wear the veil at all times and are forbidden from working.

October 2001 US begins bombing Afghanistan in retaliation for attacks on World Trade Center on September 11.

November 12 Taliban flees Kabul. Northern Alliance, coalition of mujahideen forces backed by US, occupies capital. Restrictions on women are eased.

March 21 2002 Official back-to-school day.

No more hiding

"I'm 13 years old and I should be in grade 7," says Fatanah Lamia. "But I wasn't allowed to go to school when the Taliban were here so I'm only in grade 5. Now I'm studying very hard and I'm going to catch up soon."

Fatanah's 36-year-old mother, Rabia, is a teacher but she too was forced to stay at home - where she defied the regime by setting up a home school for her daughter and her daughter's friends. "I wasn't allowed to teach in school for five years," she says. "It was hard enough not to teach or have a salary, but it was heartbreaking to see Fatanah sit at home, wondering why her brothers could go to school while she had to stay inside. But she's a smart girl and I'm sure she'll catch up - she loves going to school and learning with her friends."

Rabia is back teaching again. She teaches Pashto to grade 12 at Fatanah's school, where 2,600 girls attend classes in shifts, taught by 71 female teachers in crowded but hushed classrooms. "Fatanah's school is an incredible place, filled with energy, happiness and learning," saysRabia. After five years of being denied the basic right to education, they and their teachers couldn't wait for the official start of the school year on March 21 and returned en masse when the Taliban regime collapsed last November.

There are no chairs, desks or heating in the classrooms, so the girls sit closely together on the floor in their sweaters, coats and headscarves. When the classes begin, the girls fall silent and attentively copy down notes from the blackboard. They use notebooks, pens and geometry sets provided by UNICEF. A newly arrived metal box is opened to cries of joy. Inside are volleyballs, volleyball nets, handballs, skittle sets, whistles and footballs and other games for the children to play with. "Wait until they see this," says Alia Haffize, the school principal. "They're going to love playing volleyball."

Back at home Fatanah's father, Shah Hakim, a physics teacher, recalls the pain of the Taliban years. "Fatanah was sick so often during the past years," he says. "It was a dark period for my family. Fatanah was sad and depressed all the time, having to stay inside not learning and playing with friends at school. She has completely changed now. She's smiling all the time, she's no longer sick and the light has come back into her eyes. It's because she's back at school. I love it when she comes home and tells us all about what she learned, what she did with her friends."

"You know what else?" says Fatanah. "My mother didn't just teach me. She taught a whole bunch of girls in the neighbourhood who also couldn't go to school. She taught us right here in this room for four years. It was dangerous for her but she said that we all should be able to learn. Without her, I wouldn't even be in grade 5 - she's my hero and she's a hero to lots of the girls in the neighbourhood."

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