In Afghanistan, a girls’ school is the story of a village

SALAR, Afghanistan (AP) – Mina Ahmed lubricates a cement mix to strengthen the walls of her war-torn homes in rural Afghanistan. Her hands, worn by the birth, are bandaged with plastic scraps and elastics, but no matter what, she welcomes the new era of peace under the Taliban.

She was once afraid of the group’s strict governing style in her village of Salar. But being caught in the crosshairs of a two-decade-long war has given her a new perspective.

The Taliban’s control comes with limits, even for women, and that’s fine, the 45-year-old said. “With these restrictions, we can at least live our lives.”

But she draws the line at one point: Her 13-, 12- and 6-year-old daughters are going to school.

From a bird’s eye view, the village of Salar is camouflaged against a towering mountain range in Wardak province. The community of thousands, nearly 70 miles from the capital Kabul, serves as a microcosm of the most recent chapter in Afghanistan’s history – the second round of Taliban rule – showing what has changed and what has not been since their first time in power, in the late 1990s.

Residents of Salar, which has been under the Taliban for the past two years, are embracing the new stability now that the rebels’ war with the US military and its Afghan allies is over. Those displaced by fighting return home. Yet they fear a worsening economic crisis and a drought that is being felt strongly in a province where life revolves around the harvest.

In Kabul and other cities, public discontent with the Taliban is focused on threats to personal freedoms, including women’s rights.

In Salar, these barely resonate. The ideological gap between the Taliban leadership and the conservative rural community is not large. Many villagers supported the uprising and celebrated the fall of Kabul on August 15, which consolidated the Taliban’s control of the entire country.

But even in Salar, changes are on the way, beginning with the villagers’ insistence on their local primary school for girls.

That insistence helped pressure the Taliban to accept a new, small school, funded by international donors. But what the school will become – a formal primary school that paves the way for higher education, a religious mattress or something in between – is uncertain, as is the future of the village and the country.

A VILLAGE DEMAND

At 8 a.m., 38 small faces framed by veils sit on a carpeted floor, looking up at their teacher, Qari Wali Khan. With a stick in his hand and wrinkled forehead, he encourages the girls to recite from the Quran.

Rokia, 10, is the unlucky first. Just three words of classical Arabic escape her lips when Wali Khan interrupts and corrects her pronunciation. When she repeats again, he exclaims, “Afarin!” – “Excellent,” in pashtu.

In three hours, students ages 9-12 will cover Quranic teaching, mathematics, handwriting and more Islamic study. Homework: What is 105 x 25?

The school opened two months ago and it is the first time in 20 years that girls in the village have ever set foot in a classroom or something similar. In the absence of a building, classes are held in Wali Khan’s living room.

The classes are a product of UN negotiations with the Taliban.

In 2020, the UN began work on a program to set up girls’ learning centers in conservative and remote areas, including those under Taliban control at the time, such as the Sayedabad district where Salar is located.

Taliban negotiators were initially reluctant to embrace the idea, but an agreement was eventually reached in November 2020, said Jeanette Vogelaar, UNICEF’s director of education. International funding was secured, $ 35 million a year for three years to fund 10,000 such centers.

The launch was delayed by COVID-19. By the time the centers were to open, the Taliban had taken over in Kabul. To everyone’s surprise, they let the project continue, even using the previous government’s curriculum – even though they have introduced more Islamic learning and insisted on gender segregation and female teachers.

Wali Khan, a mattress teacher by training, got the job in Wardak because most of the educated women had traveled to the capital.

The program enables girls without formal schooling to complete six classes in three years. By the time they finish, they should be ready to enter Class 7.

It remains unclear whether they can continue thereafter. In most districts, the Taliban have banned girls ages 12-17 from going to primary school.

Still, it’s a good start, Vogelaar said. “Based on what we see now, the Taliban somehow do not appear to be the same as they behaved before,” she said.

Ten years ago, the Taliban spearheaded a deadly campaign against government officials in Wardak, with special poisons reserved for those campaigning for girls’ schools. Two village elders reported that Mirajuddin Ahmed was killed, Sayedabad’s education director and a vociferous supporter of girls’ access to education.

Several public girls’ schools were burned down in 2007 in the province. To this day, not a single one stands.

Times have changed.

“If they do not allow girls to go to this school now, there will be a riot,” said village elder Abdul Hadi Khan.

The changing attitudes may be part of a broader trend in support of education. In 2000, when the Taliban last came to power, there were only 100,000 girls in school, out of a total of 1 million school children. Now they are 4 million out of 10 million school children, according to the UN

Salars villagers wanted no different. They convinced Wali Khan to teach.

“They put their trust in me, they told me it’s a need in our community,” he said.

This may be one of the reasons why the Taliban decided to cooperate; with the economy in ruins, they could not risk alienating a constituency that supported them throughout the uprising.

There are concerns about how much the Taliban will affect schooling. The UN is aware that the Taliban are entering villages and insisting on more Islamic investigation, Vogelaar said.

Most families are not against it either. The Sayedabad district consists primarily of Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtun ethnic group, from which the Taliban is mainly drawn. Religion and conservatism are central to daily village life.

But a madrasa-like education “was not the intention,” Vogelaar said.

Wali Khan said he received specific orders from the Taliban-controlled Education Directorate in Sayedabad to “include more religious studies” in the curriculum. He obeyed.

In late October, local Taliban officials came to visit Wali Khan. They wanted to know how the teaching went.

“The girls have a hunger for learning,” he told them.

A FATHER PROUD

After class, 12-year-old Sima runs home and whizzes past Salar’s brick houses with a cloud of dust in her wake.

Her father, Nisar, is away picking tomatoes in the fields for 200 afghanis ($ 2.5) a day. He is their sole breadwinner.

Her mother, Mina, is still mixing cement.

Mina expects that it will be a long time before her home is in one piece again.

Little by little, she rebuilds and buys cement bags for the equivalent of $ 1 when she can. She has accumulated about 100,000 Afghans ($ 1,100) in debt to family and friends.

The family returned home just a month ago. Only one of the house’s four rooms was usable. Walls are still filled with bullet holes.

They had fled more than 11 years earlier and moved to the other side of the village where it was safer. Their home was too dangerous, perched on a strategic slope overlooking Highway One, which connects Kabul to the south and was a hotbed of rebel activity throughout the war.

She remembers standing out in the cold when U.S. troops inspected their house for rebels. In 2007, ambushes from army convoys on the highway became frequent. Many times, Mina saw the army’s tanks burst into flames from her kitchen window. She has lost two brothers-in-law.

The ruins of an army checkpoint lie over Mina’s home. The Afghan army held it for 18 years until the Taliban took over the area decisively two years ago.

Mina has made slow progress with the house, but fears what will happen when temperatures fall and market prices rise.

Afghanistan is struggling with an economic crisis after the United States froze Afghan assets in accordance with international sanctions against the Taliban. Foreign aid, which once accounted for 75% of government spending, has also stopped.

Mina has six children and they all need food, she said.

Everyone who has returned has a similar story.

“You will not find one person in this village who is in a good situation,” said Mahmad Rizak, 38, who was standing outside his home with a face stained with cement.

Food shortages take a toll. Mohammed Khan Hospital, the only one in the district, is struggling with a growing number of malnourished newborns moaning in the maternity ward.

On the surgical ward hangs an unusual museum with memorabilia on the wall. It consists of bullets and kidney stones removed from patients – the first from the war, the second from poor water quality.

“Tells you all about this place,” said Dr. Gul Makia.

The drought has decimated the harvest and left many whose lives revolve around cultivating the land and raising livestock with no means of earning a living.

When October ends, the tomato picking season will also end and Nisar will be out of work.

Together with his wife, he mixes cement.

He points to the space that was once occupied by Afghan soldiers, and then Taliban insurgents after them. “My daughter will be a teacher one day and we will make this a school where she can educate other girls.”

“She will be our pride,” he said.

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