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Turnaround by Taliban gives girls a chance

Afghanistan A former high-ranking Taliban official opens a school for girls, denying there was ever a ban on their education

Afghanistan A former high-ranking Taliban official opens a school for girls, denying there was ever a ban on their education

The Taliban has long been synonymous with opposition to girls' education, but signs that their hostility is weakening continue to grow.

Earlier this year, the Afghan education minister claimed in an interview with The TES that the Taliban had agreed girls were entitled to an education. The minister talked about a "cultural change" among the organisation's leadership.

Such sentiments have now been strengthened by the opening of two schools - one for girls, the other for boys - by a former senior member of the Taliban.

Abdul Salam Zaeef created the Afghan Social Foundation last year to establish independent, single-sex schools that would be acceptable to parents who oppose government-backed schools for being un-Islamic.

"We have built two schools, one for girls and one for boys, at the beginning of this year," Mullah Zaeef said. "They have two kinds of education: the curriculum of the Ministry of Education and a curriculum for Islamic education."

Mullah Zaeef served as a Taliban civil servant and minister, and was the ambassador to Pakistan when the 911 attacks happened. He was handed over to US forces in 2002, spent four-and-a-half years in prisons - including Guantanamo Bay - and was released in 2005. His autobiography, My Life with the Taliban, was published last year.

While Mullah Zaeef would like to build schools country-wide, he says the current problem is lack of funds. He has ploughed four million afghanis (#163;57,000) of his own money into the two Kabul schools built so far and is searching for donations.

But he will not take money from the Afghan government, the US, the UK or any other country that has forces in Afghanistan. Nor will he take money from the Taliban. He says he has approached Islamic countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar for financial support. "It will be a neutral organisation to do work with the people," Mullah Zaeef said.

The foundation has 29 teachers - 12 of whom are women - who work on a volunteer basis. Mullah Zaeef says his teachers are in need of further training. After discussions with the Egyptian Embassy in Kabul, he succeeded in getting two teachers from Al-Azhar University in Cairo to come and train his teachers.

Mullah Zaeef also denied that the Taliban was ever against education for girls and said the reason the organisation had not allowed girls to go to school when it ruled the country was because it had no money to build separate schools for girls and boys.

"The Taliban were powerless and they had no money (for schools)," he said. "They wanted some kind of schools where men and women were separate. They also wanted some women to be trained as teachers and the men, too. (The Taliban) were not against education, but they were not able to provide anything for education."

But Ahmed Rashid, the best-selling author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, said the Taliban had been against girls' education "full stop" and closed down schools. He said the Taliban's line now appeared to have changed.

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