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Refugee teens ready to take on male domination

Jordan

Through a pale blue door at Hashami prep school, north Amman, 30 Palestinian girls sit pressed into small chairs. Only three have their hair uncovered, the others wear veils wrapped tight about their cheeks.

Rose, 15, asks if it is her Islamic duty to serve her father and brothers.

The children discuss and respond quickly: women are equal to men, there is nothing in the Koran to say they are not. "But my father says it is forbidden in Islam that I go out with my friends, and must stay at home and look after him," Rose says. One girl bursts out: "It is not haram (forbidden)!"

So why does Rose's father think like this? Mrs Meriam asks. "Because there is an assumption of male domination in this society and that is what we have to change," says one girl.

In the Middle East, where most learning is by rote, this type of exchange is new. Classroom dialogue is one aim of a two-year project funded by the UK's Department for International Development to develop teaching and management skills in 656 Palestinian refugee schools run in four states by the UN agency UNRWA.

Teachers are trained to be trusted advisers and invite pupils to contribute ideas for improving the school. "We are much closer to our teachers now, they are almost our mothers," says 14-year-old Imam.

"We never used to talk about ourselves... but now we discuss specific events in our lives and how we should handle our problems. Our minds have been opened. We are free to challenge anyone, even our headteacher!"

The girls are now determined to have a voice in society and tackle their problems. They have started performing plays and talking to relatives about equality and freedom. "You can see the ripples travelling out into society," said principal Rose al Bana.

At Russeifa school, another UNWRA establishment in Zarqa City, pupils have decided to elect a student council to raise money and defend pupil rights.

Since the start of this year, if a father wants his daughter to leave school early and marry against her will, a delegation from the council will go to her house to try to negotiate on her behalf.

For now teachers and students are focusing on changing practices in the home and in particular giving women more authority.

And the political significance of the skills being learnt - analysis, debate and negotiation - are not lost on this refugee nation. "We are coming back, stronger wiser and more determined. We have suffered. And we will get our land back," a student called out as I left.

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