Aid agency outcry puts spotlight on girls
When children come to Aschiana, they are allocated a locker where they keep their school books, and they are given soap, shampoo, a flannel and a toothbrush.
Clandestine schools for girls have sprung up in private homes across the capital, particularly among the Hazara minority for whom education enhances their daughter's eligibility for marriage.
But the Aschiana Centre survives because it inhabits a different twilight zone: the moral one, which even the mullahs recognise as dividing the simple absolutes of orthodoxy from the human cost of growing up in a city that has been a war zone for nearly five years.
Even before the Taliban appeared, girls' enrolment was a mere 3.6 per cent of the school-age, female population.
And all the centre's 250 pupils work to support their families - washing cars, polishing shoes, selling food or drink, or collecting firewood, waste paper and scrap. In between their chores, they can get breakfast, a wash and schooling in health education, maths, and Dari, the main language of Kabul.
They are just a handful of the 28,000 children identified working in the streets during a 1996 survey by the Swiss non-governmental organisation, Terre des Hommes (TDH), and the UN High Commission for Refugees.
With the Taliban's restrictions on women working - except in health and as beggars - that number has increased, with some households dependent on children as the main bread-winners.
"It took two months to get permission from the Taliban authorities to get even the small girls back to the centre," said TDH's delegate Nick Hughes. "It's a very confusing situation because Afghan statute says that children cease to be children at the age of 18. Sharia law says that girls cease to be children at the age of 14 and boys at the age of 16.
"The Taliban say there is no specific age for boys, and girls cease to be children at the age of seven. There should be no mixing of the sexes after that age."
That somewhat prurient distinction between the genders, added to the otherwise blanket ban on girls' education, has divided the international donor community.
UNICEF stopped all aid to education in Taliban-controlled areas in November 1995, on the grounds that the policy contravened the Convention of the Rights of the Child. But the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan has argued that boys should not also be penalised because of Taliban views.
The Taliban have publicly stated they will review their position on girls' schooling once their military goals have been achieved and they have drawn up a new curriculum.
But the re-opening of girls' schools may not be enough to allay the international outcry if the curriculum for girls - as well as boys - is patterned on the madrassa, or religious schools, which gave birth to the Taliban movement.
"Donors won't have any objection if there are classes about religion, so long as there is some practical education, relevant to their mandate," said Paul Barker, of the charity CARE, which supports 38 "home schools" in Taliban-controlled provinces south of Kabul.
"I think the Taliban will come to realise there are some valuable skills that come out of a 'secular', or broader-based education."
At the ministerial level, more technocratic Taliban are sensitive to the international outcry but are powerless to assuage it, without alienating their rank-and-file supporters, most of whom are recruited from more conservative Pashtun areas in the south of Afghanistan.
There is nothing new about the politicisation of education in Afghanistan: King Nadir Shah was assassinated at a school prize-giving in 1933; enforced literacy programmes ignited the jihad in 1978; schools and teachers were a frequent target of mujahedin, financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia, and propaganda glamorising the jihad found its way into textbooks supplied to Afghan refugee camps by the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the 1980s.
Demand for education is growing, even in Pashtun areas, so long as the principle of purdah is assured.
CARE's schools follow a model widely used in refugee camps in Pakistan during the war against the Soviet Union. They are co-educational, open for 140 minutes a day and offer instruction in the Pashto language, mathematics and Islamiyat, or religious knowledge. Teachers are paid by individual contribution, and the schools are run by village committees.
Since equity of access for girls is guaranteed, the schools qualify for UNICEF support, while the fact that they are community-run ensures they command support from parents and the mullahs.
"When the Taliban came to Khost," Mr Barker said, "they tried to close them down. But the community went to the Taliban leaders and said, 'We're paying the salaries and we want this to continue.' "There's such a big gulf between our perception of the world and theirs that it is going to take a long time, a lot of engagement at a lot of different levels. That's where NGO activities can help. Afghan staff at a community level using Afghan analogies and Afghan logic to change minds. That's ultimately where it is going to happen."