All smiles, Afghan girls go back to school

Jalalabad Girls' School No. 2 has no books and can't pay its teachers, but students are eager to pick up educations suspended by the Taliban.

Five years of shutdown and neglect have taken their toll on Jalalabad's Girls' School No. 2. There are no books to read, no lesson plans to teach from, no furniture to sit on, and no funds to pay for materials or teacher salaries.

But what this school lacks in resources, it makes up with enthusiasm. Small wonder. This is the first chance these girls have to resume their educations since the Taliban, the extreme Islamist militia that controlled the country from 1996 until being ousted more than three weeks ago, shut down all girls' schools by religious decree.

"I cannot express my happiness to you," says Lida, a 15-year-old in a white scarf who is preparing to pick up where she left off, in fifth grade. "I can remember the day the Taliban came, and we went home in great sadness. But we are quite happy to return to school."

Many girls kept up with their studies at home, they say, taught by parents or older siblings. And while most still cover their heads with veils - some even wear the all-covering, blue-tinted burqas once required by the Taliban - these girls say they intend to take full part in Afghan life. "In Afghan society, it is not an unusual thing for girls to go to college," Lida says.

On this day, more than 500 girls have shown up for registration at Jalalabad's Girls' School No. 2.

They are among some 3,500 girls who have registered for classes in Nangarhar Province, where Jalalabad is located, Abdul Ghani Hidayat, director of education for the post-Taliban provincial government, told the Associated Press last week. Since Taliban forces withdrew on Nov. 7, Mr. Hidayat said the province has reopened more than 280 schools for 150,000 returning students.

After 23 years of war, the past five under the Taliban's restrictive interpretation of Islamic law, freedom is coming quietly to the young women in this ultraconservative patch of eastern Afghanistan. Nowhere is that freedom more evident than in Jalalabad's dusty schools, where the brilliant and the fortunate are now attempting to make up for lost time.

But while the new post-Taliban government - composed of tribal elders and warlords - is embracing an ethos of tolerance that the Taliban lacked, they will have their work cut out for them.

In a city of 250,000, where half the population is under the age of 20, just a few thousand, or less than 10 percent of school-aged children, have been able to find the resources to return to school, challenge their minds, and rebuild their futures.

Only 3 out of 100 women can read

Of course, Afghanistan, a desperately poor and largely rural country of 26 million citizens, has long had difficulty educating its masses. During the past decade, where civil war followed 10 years of rebellion against Soviet invasion, this challenge became nearly insurmountable.

According to a 2000 survey by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), taken during Taliban rule, 8 of every 20 boys and 19 out of 20 girls were unable to attend school, even though education officially has been free and compulsory since 1935.

Illiteracy is rampant. Another UNICEF survey, conducted in 1997, found that only 35 percent of men and 10 percent of women in urban areas could read "easily or with difficulty." In rural areas, these rates drop to 26 percent for men and 3 percent for women.

For Maezuddin, the gray-bearded principal of Girls' School No. 2, the day the Taliban announced on radio that all girls' schools would be closed was a particularly tough one. "I was just asking the parents to make arrangements in their homes so their children can get educated," he says, thumbing his smooth, reddish prayer beads. Now, he says, "It will be difficult for them to start from the same status they were in before."

But Maezuddin (like most Afghans, he uses only one name) says he has no trouble finding teachers willing to work, even without salaries, since most take second jobs selling vegetables in the market. "Right now, under the present government, we are earning nothing," he says. "We just do this to serve the nation, to serve the soil, so the nation can be relieved of its barbarism."

In her fourth-grade classroom, Miss Nooriya is teaching more than 30 girls the most basic of lessons - the rules of the classroom, raising their hands before speaking, and sitting quietly on cotton rugs stretched out over an inch-deep deposit of sand.

"I want to go to school all the way to 12th grade, and I want to go to university," says 12-year-old Yasmin, whose father was a college-educated agricultural expert for the provincial government. But Yasmin says she probably won't be the first woman in her family to attend college. "I have an older sister in 11th grade, and she might be the first to go to college."

Peace needed, plus open schools

Many of the girls here say they have mixed emotions about the days of the Taliban. While its leaders stopped the education of girls and forbade women from working outside the home, among other restrictions, the Taliban had little impact on what most women did inside their homes, including listening to music cassettes and watching videos - both officially banned activities.

Most important, these girls say, the Taliban restored law and order after the 1992-'96 civil war and helped make the streets safe enough for women to visit the market without fear of rape or harassment.

Miriam, a 17-year-old who covers all but one eye with her brown scarf in front of a Western reporter, says she regrets that during Taliban rule, most of her friends fell behind in their schooling. But, she says, the warlords who now control the region around Jalalabad - and much of the rest of the country - pose a far worse danger. They are the same ones whose civil war killed tens of thousands of Afghans and left much of the country in ruins.

"With the present government, there are two commanders who are in charge of the city, and they are enemies of each other, and it is impossible for a small city to have two kings," Miriam says. "We are afraid of the future, because these men have been tested once already, before the Taliban came. If they can come to a peaceful solution between them, then we can have a peaceful life."

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