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Afghanistan: Women Return To Medicine After Taliban Ban

By Mustafa Sarwar Graduating class of Kabul Medical University (RFE/RL) After years of hardship, students from Kabul Medical University received their diplomas at a ceremony in the Afghan capital on May 5, including 90 women, who became the country's first post-Taliban female medical graduates. The 460 students in the university's 16th graduating class studied curative, pediatric, and dental medicine. The graduation was also attended by the dean of the university, professors, and dignitaries from the ministries of Public Health and Higher Education.

PRAGUE, May 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- During the days of the Taliban, women were not allowed to study medicine at Kabul Medical University, not even under the cover of the all-encompassing burqas.

More than four years after the fall of the Taliban, however, the radiant faces of 90 women could be seen in the university's auditorium, speaking happily about their graduation. Some of them are now mothers, having had to interrupt their medical studies during the five years the Taliban held power in the capital.

Committed To Helping

Abeda Fahim says she now feels free and prosperous. Despite a lack of modern medical equipment throughout the country and the poor state of education, Fahim says she has a firm commitment to serve her patients.

"I am committed to serve the children, the women, and the people of my country," Fahim says. "I want to do something that at least can cure part of the pain felt by the women of our country."

Fahim is optimistic about her future career, but admits to being nervous about finally working as a doctor. She says she is reluctant to go to the provinces to work, since she feels she does not yet have enough practical experience in medicine.

Most of the graduates share the same concern. They want to stay in Kabul and are urging the Public Health Ministry to provide them with jobs in hospitals in the capital, or at least in the main cities of the country.

Kabul Medical University President Obaidullah Obaid says he shares the concerns of the students and has conveyed that message to health officials.

"I am committed to serve the children, the women, and the people of my country," said Abeda Fahim, one of the women who graduated on May 5. "I want to do something that at least can cure part of the pain felt by the women of our country."

"I suggest that a two-year training program should be provided for the 460 young graduates, to train them here [in Kabul]," Obaid said. "This will help them get enough experience in all fields of medicine. And once they go to the provinces, they will not face any problems. They will not be able to work as they must when they are dispatched to the remote parts of the country unless they are provided with practical work here at the hospitals."

About two years ago, the Public Health Ministry decided to send new graduates of medicine to work in the provinces. The ministry says there are not enough vacancies for young doctors in Kabul hospitals at the moment.

Recalling The Hard Times

Tears roll down his cheeks as Khyber Tabesh, diploma in hand, recalls the seven years of study, many of them under strict Taliban rule, that led to his graduation from Kabul Medical University.

"I am really happy today," Tabesh said. "This diploma means a lot to me. I feel like I have gained a superb victory in life."

Khyber Tabesh on graduation day in Kabul (RFE/RL)

Tabesh, a lifelong Kabul resident, enrolled in the medical school in 1997, a year after the Taliban took control of the city. He says studying medicine during the Taliban years was difficult beyond words.

"It was a nightmare," he said. "No student in the world could bear what we suffered during our studies. I can't put it into words. It was unbelievable what we, the Afghan medical students, experienced. It was more of a strangulation."

Tabesh says the Taliban would measure the length of the beards of the medical students, "and if they found out that they had been trimmed, they would punish us harshly."

And at the start of each day, the Taliban members who worked as Islamic teachers for the university would visit classrooms to make sure that students were wearing properly tied turbans, which varied in length from 7 to 9 meters.

Living conditions in the dormitories were also unbearable -- no hot water or heating, and little electricity. The food was also poor, mostly what the students referred to mockingly as "Titanic soup" -- a watery gruel in which stones and sand would often be found.

A Shortage Of Research Material

Proper study materials were also rare. The Taliban prohibited medical students from working with human cadavers, saying such studies were against Shari'a law and were an insult to the dignity of human beings. As a result, some students resorted to digging up graves and using the stolen bones for their studies.

"We lacked the very essential things in that time," Tabesh said. "The first semester, we had anatomy classes. It is a very difficult subject, and you need to have materials like bones and skeletons to study with. But the Taliban did not allow us to work on the human body, so we needed to buy bones from other boys who were in the higher grades at the university. We could not even afford to buy an anatomy atlas textbook. And since we had to use human bones [dug from graves], sometimes [the chemicals used to clean the bones] produced allergies. It was unbelievable."

Tabesh recalls the dean of the university during the Taliban days chasing students with a long stick.

"I remember him boasting that no man could ever be as cruel as he was," Tabesh says. "It was pretty dreadful."

Education And Islam

Education And Islam
An Afghan child prepares for the first day of school(epa file photo)

KEEPING KIDS IN SCHOOL. Education raises many vexing social issues in impoverished and predominantly Muslim countries like Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia. In these countries, many students fail to complete their education for reasons ranging from poverty to discrimination.
“One of the main problems is the distance between the child’s home and the nearest school building. This is particularly a problem for adolescent girls because families quite understandably don’t feel comfortable allowing the girls to walk long distances unaccompanied to the classrooms,” says a UN aid worker in Afghanistan...(more).

See also:

The Role Of Religion In Classrooms

Madrasahs Reject Government Crackdown Efforts

Madrasahs Lead Religious Teaching Revival

UN Report Finds World's Children 'Excluded And Invisible'