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Afghanistan: Taliban Resisters Hope To Build Women's Rights Movement

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan's schools are now in recess for winter. But when they reopen in spring, girls and women will have the chance to return to classes for the first time in five years. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, many of the girls and women kept up their studies in secret under the Taliban so they would be prepared to return to school when the chance came.

Kabul, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- All over Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of girls and women are now eagerly awaiting the coming spring, when schools and universities reopen with warmer weather.

For now, most schools remain closed, as they do every winter, for lack of heating in classrooms. But already, school corridors are abuzz with female teachers returning to work and administrators preparing to give placement exams to female students they haven't seen in five years.

Large numbers of those students will have to return to the same class levels they left in 1996, when the Taliban took Kabul and forced all girls and women to give up their studies and stay at home. But as many as 10,000 girls and women nationwide may be able to return at a more advanced level than they left, thanks to a secret women's network that enabled them to keep up their schooling despite the militia's ban.

One of the organizers of that network is Soraya Parlika, who lives in one of Kabul's most modern neighborhoods -- a region of block-tower apartments built by the Soviets in the 1980s. Parlika is middle-aged, affable, and greets visitors at her door wearing the light headscarf acceptable to mainstream Muslims, not the head-to-toe burqa enforced by the Taliban.

Parlika says that her apartment is just one of hundreds in the city which, during the past five years, had a double purpose. To the public eye, it was just a meeting place for her daughters' friends with nothing on the agenda beyond idle socializing. But in private, the large living room was a serious classroom -- and all those who visited were female teachers and students.

The secrecy was necessary, because if the girls and women were intent on keeping up their lessons, the Taliban were just as intent on preventing them. The militia's religious police from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice regularly sought to identify the locations of the classrooms through informers and raid them.

Parlika -- whose last name is a pseudonym that she has used so long that she still keeps it -- remembers the Taliban's raids vividly. After all, they took place as recently as early November, when the Taliban finally abandoned Kabul as their power collapsed.

"Many women were arrested and beaten and their houses were searched, and the men of the house were beaten because of [women meeting to study there]," Parlika says. "It was the daily duty of the Taliban to close [our secret] schools."

She remembers one raid when she and a crowd of girl students were caught at a friend's apartment, where lessons had begun at five in the morning: "We were in a computer course which began at 5 a.m., followed by one at 6 a.m., another at 7 a.m., and then at 9 a.m., the Taliban came. The students ran and covered themselves with the apartment owner's bed quilts [to pretend they were sleeping] and [told the Taliban] they lived there. And some jumped from the third-floor window to escape."

Parlika says the punishment was beating and detention, usually for several hours rather than days. There was always the fear that punishment would grow worse for repeat offenders. Books were seized and destroyed and were extremely difficult to replace.

Parlika, whose brother was a senior official in a pre-Taliban government, says she risked everything to help maintain the classes for girls because she refused to see the capital's educated women completely marginalized. Within three months after the Taliban took Kabul, 103,000 girls were sent home from schools, along with some 4,000 women studying at Kabul University. Another 7,800 female teachers were fired, together with the rest of the city's female professionals. All of this despite the fact that women had previously made up some 70 percent of all teachers and half of all government workers.

Parlika says that women responded to the Taliban by spontaneously setting up the classrooms in their homes. The result was a very loose network of secret schools, which were only vaguely aware of each other's existence in different cities and towns. Often new classrooms sprang up when a student in a school in one town moved to another, frequently as the result of being displaced by fighting or drought. The number of students in a home school was usually between five and 10, and the lessons were taught by female teachers or professionals determined to pass on their knowledge.

With Afghanistan's schools now set to readmit women in the spring, Parlika says she and many other organizers hope to preserve their networks to help disadvantaged girls and boys, as well as other segments of society, cope with the country's many problems. She says her network, called the Afghan Women's Cooperative Association, plans to ask state authorities for financial support to set up an after-school tutoring program for needy students. Those include students who need to catch up after years of being out of school and those who may have lost a parent or older sibling who normally would have helped them with their homework.

She says the tutoring program -- like the secret girls' schools of the past five years -- would involve children of all economic groups. Other future projects could include skills training for fatherless boys and job-creation programs for war widows with no other breadwinners in the family.

But if women like Parlika are determined to translate their experience under the Taliban into a continuing activist movement today, they also say they face two obstacles. The most immediate one is financial. The new Afghan government has yet to pay even currently employed male educators some six months' worth of back wages, and it is in no position to fund new social programs. That means any help will have to help from international non-governmental organizations.

A second obstacle is the continuing resistance among men in power to anything that resembles a women's activist movement. That resistance was amply demonstrated in November when women activists here tried to stage a public rally for the right to play a greater role in society. The small group of activists -- some wearing headscarves but most in burqas -- was turned back by Northern Alliance officials who said they were concerned for the women's security.

Still, women who have braved the Taliban remain adamant about going back to their old jobs and pushing for greater responsibilities and social freedoms in the future.

One of these women is Fatana Shamal, who taught some 20 girls in a clandestine school. She and several hundred other women gathered at a central mosque recently to commemorate assassinated Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who is widely regarded as having supported more rights for women.

Shamal, who studied at the law and politics faculty of Kabul University before the Taliban came to power, says she now hopes for a job in her profession at the Ministry of Justice. She says she risked arrest by the Taliban to teach because she saw it as necessary for the future of the country: "[We did it] for the future of the children, for the people and for the society, and for the improvement of Afghanistan. We tried to help and serve our people by continuing with teaching and education."

Of the many women at the memorial service, Shamal was the only one to throw back her face-covering burqa to speak to reporters. She vows that once she returns to work, she will put away her veil for good and do her job wearing an Islamic headscarf.