Thousands of girls in remote north-western Pakistan have had to abandon their studies after extremists blew up their schools.
Taliban terrorise girls' schools
PESHAWAR, Pakistan // Thousands of young girls in remote north-western Pakistan have been forced to abandon their education after militant extremists blew up their schools and issued death threats to female pupils and their teachers. The terrorism campaign by the Taliban in Pakistan - a loose group of extremists allied to Afghanistan's hardline Islamists - started three years ago, and has spread from remote tribal areas to towns and villages across North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Over the past three years, three teachers have been killed and 100 government schools destroyed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) close to the border with Afghanistan, leaving more than 3,000 girls between the ages of five and 15 with no access to education, said Fazli Manan, who heads the education department in the tribal areas. A further 20 schools in settled areas, governed by provincial authorities, also have been destroyed, including on the outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of neighbouring NWFP.
The effect on education for girls in the province, which is one of Pakistan's most impoverished areas, will be felt for years to come, said Mehmood Shah, a retired administrator and security analyst. "Banning girls' education by orthodox militants has taken us 100 years back. It will affect society as a whole," Mr Shah said. Already, the tribal areas have one of the lowest literacy rates in the country. According to a 1998 census, the literacy rate for girls in FATA was just three per cent.
In the north-west province, the literacy rate for women was 20 per cent compared with 57 per cent for men, according to a 2005 joint report by the government and the World Bank. The report blamed the gender gap on limited access for women to education and other services. Mr Shah said attempts by militants to impose strict Islamic law in the region had escalated since 2005 as the federal government grappled with its own internal problems leaving a power vacuum. He warned against the dangers of the "Talibanisation" of Pakistan.
Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, girls were not allowed to go to school and women were not allowed to work. The hardline regime, which was toppled from power by a US-led military operation in 2001, believed that education distracted girls from Islam. Taliban militants in Pakistan operate under an umbrella group known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which is headed by Baitullah Mehsud, who has sworn allegiance to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"We are against those institutions which we believe create hurdles for the Taliban movement. We will target these institutions," said Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. In Darra Adamkhel, a federally administered tribal area 35km from Peshawar, all seven government-run schools and one women's college have been destroyed by militants. All of the privately run colleges and schools also have been damaged in bomb attacks, officials said.
"About 20 girls in my class of 60 have abandoned their education for fear of being attacked," said Ayesha Afridi, 16, a pupil at Shahin Public School in Darra. The school, which has a capacity to teach 700 girls, received several warnings from the militants about two years ago threatening to launch an attack unless the girls and female teachers wore the all-encompassing burqa, she said. "We started wearing the burqa and it seemed very awkward, but we wore it because we were afraid of the militants," Ayesha said. Her school was bombed regardless.
As Ayesha spoke by telephone from her home in Darra, her mother tried to stop her from saying anything against the militants out of fear of reprisals. The threats in Darra also stopped many girls from taking their end-of-year exams. "The situation in Darra is critical compared to other tribal areas," said Mr Manan, the FATA education director. "Teachers and students do not attend school due to lack of security."
In the staunchly conservative districts of Upper Dir and Lower Dir, in NWFP, at least five schools have been bombed or burnt down since the beginning of this month, according to officials. Even in settled areas in the province, nominally under government control, militants have been waging their campaign of terror and intimidation to keep girls out of schools. A year ago, in Mardan district, central NWFP, militants warned students at Par Hoti government school of dire consequences if they did not wear the burqa.
For one farmworker with three school-age daughters, it was cheaper to pull his girls out of class than to spend 450 rupees (Dh24) on each of the floor-length burqas, said Saeed Khan, an elder in Gujarat village in Mardan. Mr Khan said he gave the farmer money to buy the burqas. While some families are able to take their daughters out of the troubled areas and into more secure districts, not everyone has that luxury.
Khursheed Khan, a father of four girls, said he did not know where he could send his daughter to get an education. His daughters had been studying at Sangota Public School, a prestigious old missionary school in the Swat Valley, a former tourist area in NWFP that has been overrun with militants fighting Pakistani soldiers. The school was closed for more than three months last year after militants threatened to attack unless the girls wore the burqa. Sher Afzal Khan, an education official in the Swat Valley, said 64 primary schools for girls had been closed because of security concerns and that secondary schools in at least four areas had been destroyed.
The government launched a military campaign in the valley in October to try to clear the area of militants. A peace deal was reached on May 20 this year in which the militants agreed not to oppose girls' education. However, Mr Khan said many girls' schools were still closed as they had been taken over by the army and used as temporary barracks for soldiers. Before the rise of the Taliban in the region, women's education was limited to religious teachings in many areas. In traditional Pashtun culture, girls are not able to move about freely because they are considered to be a "symbol of honour" by male members of the family, to be kept at home.Today, many girls in conservative areas still end their education after primary school.
The struggle between radical Islamic militants and those in favour of offering girls a secular, modern education was highlighted by a commando assault on Islamabad's Red Mosque last year. Hundreds of girls educated at the mosque's madrasa, armed with sticks, protested against the government of Pervez Musharraf, the president, which has tried to promote a policy of "enlightened moderation" in Pakistan.More than 100 people were killed in the assault including an unknown number of women.
Many of the women came from conservative areas like Dir, Swat and other parts of NWFP. The attacks on schools in NWFP and the tribal regions highlight the failure of Mr Musharraf's push for "enlightened moderation", analysts say, warning that the extremists are pushing neglected parts of the country "back to the stone age". "Militants send a clear message by burning a school that they oppose girl's education and also that they, not the government, are in control," said Maryam Bibi, who works at a non-governmental organisation providing education for girls in Dir.
* The National