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

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

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SALAR, Afghanistan – Mina Ahmed coats a cement mix to reinforce the walls of her war-ravaged home in the Afghan countryside. Her hands, worn out from work, are bandaged with bits of plastic and rubber bands, but whatever, she welcomes the new era of peace under the Taliban.

She once feared the harsh style of the group in her village of Salar. But being caught in the sights of a two-decade-long war gave it a new perspective.

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

But she draws a line on one point: her daughters, aged 13, 12 and 6, must go to school.

From a bird’s eye view, the village of Salar is camouflaged against an imposing mountain range in the province of Wardak. The community of several thousand people, nearly 70 miles from the capital Kabul, serves as a microcosm of the final chapter in Afghanistan’s history – the second cycle of Taliban rule – showing what has changed and what has not has not changed since their first time in power. , at the end of the 90s.

The people of Salar, who have been under the control of the Taliban for the past two years, embrace the new stability now that the insurgent war with the US military and its Afghan allies is over. People displaced by the fighting are returning home. Still, they fear a worsening economic crisis and a drought that is being felt badly in a province where life revolves around the harvest.

In Kabul and other cities, public discontent with the Taliban centers on threats to individual 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 insurgency and celebrated the fall of Kabul on August 15, which consolidated Taliban control across the country.

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

This insistence helped push the Taliban to accept a new small school, funded by international donors. But what will become of the school – a formal public school paving the way for higher education, a religious madrasa, or something in between – is uncertain, as is the future of the village and the country.

A VILLAGE REQUEST

At 8 a.m., 38 small faces framed in veils sit on a carpeted floor and gaze at their teacher, Qari Wali Khan. With a staff in his hand and a wrinkled forehead, he calls on the girls to recite the Quran.

Rokia, 10, is the first unlucky one. Barely three classical Arabic words escape his lips when Wali Khan interrupts him, correcting his pronunciation. When she repeats again, he exclaims, “Afarin! – “Excellent”, in Pashto.

In three hours, students, aged 9 to 12, will cover Quranic memorization, mathematics, handwriting and other Islamic studies. Homework: What is 105 x 25?

The school opened two months ago, marking the first time in 20 years that girls from the village have stepped foot in a classroom, or something like that. In the absence of a building, lessons take place in Wali Khan’s living room.

The courses are the product of UN negotiations with the Taliban.

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

Taliban interlocutors were initially reluctant to embrace the idea, but an agreement was finally reached in November 2020, said Jeanette Vogelaar, education manager at UNICEF. International funding has been secured, $ 35 million per year for three years to fund 10,000 of these centers.

The launch was delayed by COVID-19. By the time the centers were to open, the Taliban had taken control of Kabul. To everyone’s surprise, they allowed the project to move forward, even using the previous government’s agenda – although they introduced more Islamic learning and insisted on gender segregation and female teachers. .

Wali Khan, a trained madrasa teacher, got the post in Wardak because most of the educated women had left for the capital.

The program enables out-of-school girls to complete six years of schooling in three years. Once completed, they should be ready to enter 7th grade.

Whether they can continue after that is open. In most districts, the Taliban have banned girls between the ages of 12 and 17 from attending public schools.

Still, it’s a good start, said Vogelaar. “From what we’re seeing now, one way or another, the Taliban doesn’t seem to be the same as it used to be,” she said.

Ten years ago, the Taliban were at the forefront of a deadly campaign targeting government officials in Wardak, with particular venom reserved for those campaigning for girls’ schools. Two village elders recounted the shooting death of Mirajuddin Ahmed, Sayedabad’s director of education and a staunch advocate for girls’ access to education.

Several public girls’ schools were burnt down in 2007 in the province. To date, not a single one stands up.

The times have changed.

“If they don’t allow the girls to go to this school now, there will be an uprising,” village chief Abdul Hadi Khan said.

Changing attitudes may be part of a larger trend in favor of education. In 2000, when the Taliban was last in power, there were only 100,000 girls in school, out of a total of one million schoolchildren. They are now 4 million out of 10 million schoolchildren, according to the UN

The villagers of Salar did not want to do otherwise. They convinced Wali Khan to teach.

“They trusted me, they told me, it’s a need in our society,” he said.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Taliban decided to cooperate; with the economy in ruins, they could not risk alienating a constituency that supported them throughout the insurgency.

There are concerns about how the Taliban will shape education. The UN is aware that the Taliban are entering villages and insisting on more Islamic studies, Vogelaar said.

Most families aren’t against it either. The Sayedabad district is mainly made up of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan, from which the Taliban are mainly drawn. Religion and conservatism are at the heart of the daily life of the village.

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

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.

At the end of October, local Taliban officials came to visit Wali Khan. They wanted to know how the lessons were going.

“Girls are thirsty to learn,” he told them.

THE PRIDE OF A FATHER

After school, 12-year-old Sima runs home, past the mud brick houses of Salar, a cloud of dust in her wake.

Her father, Nisar, went to pick tomatoes in the fields for 200 afghanis ($ 2.5) a day. He is their only breadwinner.

Her mother, Mina, always mixes cement.

Mina expects it to be a long time before her house is in one piece again.

She is slowly rebuilding herself, buying bags of cement for the equivalent of $ 1 whenever she can. She has accumulated some 100,000 afghanis ($ 1,100) in debt to relatives and friends.

The family returned home just over a month ago. Only one of the four rooms in the house was usable. The walls are still riddled with bullets.

They had fled over 11 years earlier, moving to the other side of the village where it was safer. Their home was too dangerous, located on a strategic slope overlooking Highway One, which links Kabul to the south and was a hotbed of insurgent activity throughout the war.

She remembers standing in the cold as American troops scoured their home for insurgents. In 2007, ambushes of military convoys on the highway became frequent. On several occasions, Mina saw army tanks catch on fire from her kitchen window. She has lost two brothers-in-law.

The ruins of an army checkpoint can be found above Mina’s house. The Afghan military held her for 18 years, until the Taliban decisively took over the region two years ago.

Mina has made slow progress with the house but is worried about what will happen as temperatures drop and market prices rise.

Afghanistan is grappling 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 state spending, has also come to a halt.

Mina has six children and they all need to be fed, she said.

Everyone who has returned has a similar story.

“You won’t find a single person in this village who is in a good situation,” said Mahmad Rizak, 38, standing in front of his house with a cement-stained face.

Food shortages are wreaking havoc. Mohammed Khan Hospital, the only one in the district, is grappling with an increasing number of malnourished newborns crying in the maternity ward.

In the surgical department, an unusual museum of memories hangs on the wall. These are bullets and kidney stones taken 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 crops, leaving many people whose lives consist of plowing the land and raising livestock with no means of earning a living.

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

He joins his wife in the mixing of cement.

He points to the room once occupied by Afghan soldiers, then Taliban insurgents after them. “My daughter will become a teacher someday, and we will make it a school for her to educate other girls. “

“She will be our pride,” he said.

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