MATHRA, Pakistan -- Shama and her classmates, wearing matching uniforms and singing nursery rhymes, would fit in well in any modern school in the more affluent urban centers of Pakistan.
But the 7-year-old is not studying in an area known for its enlightenment. She is in a dark classroom in an impoverished Pashtun village in a region known for its conservatism.
In recent years, Islamic militants have made their presence known throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, and brazen attacks have put the once-peaceful provincial capital of Peshawar on high alert. Schools -- especially those daring enough to educate girls -- are particularly vulnerable.
Yet Shama's school, operated by a local charity in Mathra, a village on the outskirts of Peshawar, stands as an island of tranquility and opportunity.
"I love everything about this school," Shama says. "I like studying in the classrooms and playing outside."
Mix Of Modern, Traditional
Shama's school was set up six years ago by the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation, named after an iconic Pashtun pacifist. It is one of 14 similar schools run by the trust with the goal of helping turn the tide of extremism in the region.
Shama (at left) and her classmates
It starts with ending the culture of violence in the classroom. Whereas canings and beatings of pupils even younger than Shama are commonplace in Pakistani schools -- whether at state-sponsored madrasahs or exclusive private institutions -- corporal punishment is banned.
The educational approach taken is a mix of modern methods and Pashtun traditions that promote community and a commitment to pluralism. Girls make up the majority of the schools' 3,000 students, and most teachers are women. To better prepare students for the future, the teaching of life skills is encouraged, rather than rote learning.
Tariq Rahim, Shama's art teacher, says that he uses Pashto poetry and folklore to help his students bring out their creative sides.
"We want our students to be happy while learning. We don't have a culture of silence here," Rahim says. "They can talk freely and are never scolded into keeping silent. We don't have any punishments. We want them to stop thinking about the violence they see around them."
Many of the students were on the streets of Mathra just a few short months ago, and locals say they see positive changes since they started attending the school.
Hashem Babar donated his ancestral home to serve as the schoolhouse.
Hashem Babar, a businessman turned politician in his 70s, donated his sprawling ancestral home to serve as the schoolhouse.
"The mental attitude of these kids changed within months," Babar says. "These very kids were playing around in front of their houses, quarrelling with each other."
Now, Babar says, those same children are cleaned up and exude confidence.
Principal Samina Rehman says curiosity is nurtured, with an eye toward developing critical thinking and skills. Traditional Pashtun cultural values, such as tolerance and commitment to clan and community, are stressed.
Rehman admits that the emphasis on modern methods does not sit well with everyone. Parents are sometimes persuaded to pull their children out of the school by conservative elements who believe the school is un-Islamic. This is not the case, argues Rehman, who notes that the school complies with Pakistani laws requiring the teaching of Islamic subjects.
"Some of the students who have dropped out of here have later said that we are being pulled away from religion here. That is not true," Rehman says. "After [our morning] assembly, we offer lessons in reading the Koran. We also teach Islamic studies as a subject. But our students are still being told to leave our school because it is taking them away from Islam."
Engaging With Critics
Such perceptions could have deadly consequences in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where militants have blown up hundreds of schools over the past few years in the belief they were against Islam.
A project created by Shama and her classmates
Khadim Hussain, the director of the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation, says the schools counter such threats by actively engaging with the people making them.
He says that coordination committees within local communities help to protect the schools. These committees and local emigres make significant monetary contributions to fund the foundation, as does the government and international donors.
The vision, Hussain says, is for the schools to expand throughout all of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's 24 districts.
"We now have schools in 14 districts. But if we can build a school in every district, it will be the model school for that district," Hussain says. "Then we can talk to the government about public-private partnerships that would adopt our methods in schools throughout the districts. This way it will spread everywhere."