A deluge of girls, books, in Afghan schools

Three tanks plus two rocket-propelled grenades is equal to five instruments of jihad.

In school textbooks across Afghanistan, weapons of war were used as typical examples for teaching basic arithmetic – common, as they were, as apples and oranges.

This school year, which opened last weekend, turns a new page because girls will be going back to school with boys for the first time in five years.

But it also starts a whole new chapter, with textbooks that no longer include much of the militarism that infused education here for two decades. The books will also provide positive images of women and minority ethnic groups.

More than 4 million new primary school textbooks are being distributed around the country, in an emergency back-to-school program funded by Washington's main arm for overseas assistance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in conjunction with United Nations Children's Education Fund and Afghanistan's interim government.

Leaders of Afghanistan's government, who began their six-month term in December, asked US officials to help start the new year by providing textbooks for the nation's schools, many of which are – quite literally – still shell-shocked. Many schools were bombed during more than two decades of war, and thousands were reported burned by the Taliban.

The school books that did survive the war portrayed women only as housewives, if at all. And elementary school teaching was imbued with a spirit of military struggle against the Soviet Union, a war of holy warriors against communists that had widespread support.

"The interim authority itself wanted militarism to be deemphasized and took out most of these inappropriate images," says James Kunder, USAID's director of Afghanistan recovery and reconstruction. "It's a vast improvement."

Because warlords still reign over many provincial areas, the government in Kabul is struggling to show that it carries authority across Afghanistan. By delivering textbooks, the new government hopes to increase its legitimacy. Up to 10 million textbooks will be delivered throughout the country by spring, as part of a $6.7 million program to give teachers educational materials that don't focus on war.

The new books, which are in both Dari and Pashto, also include pictures of women, something that was difficult to find in recent years. The Taliban frowned on human images in general and images of women in particular.

In one of the Dari books, the picture beneath the word "teacher" is of a woman in a simple head scarf, but not an all-encompassing burqa, the Taliban-mandated covering for women that leaves only a small patch of mesh through which the woman can see.

Many schools around the country, and even those in the capital, are still awaiting textbooks. But teachers at the Mir Ahmed Shahid School in Kabul, who had not been to work for five years, say they will make do.

"There are a lot of problems for some of the teachers, because some of them have forgotten how to teach," says Rahail Pupal.

She, like many of the other 35 women who teach here alongside 10 male teachers, ran an illegal private school in her house during the Taliban era. When she got caught on two occasions, she pretended that she was only teaching them lines from the Koran.

Now, the challenges for teachers may be equally taxing. The school will have 6th-grade classes that will have 12-year-old boys and 17-year-old girls, some of whom will be expected to marry soon and drop out.

"We don't have any books yet, but we remember what to teach," says Maliha Taloo, a mother of five daughters who also ran a school in her home when she could no longer go to work.

Some of the children here are scared about going back to school. Back when the girls were still in school, the building was shelled and three of the students were killed. Others are simply anxious to get out of the house.

"I got tired of being at home for 24 hours a day," says Ghazal Ahmedi, a 12-year-old girl who rocks from side to side with excitement at the thought of going back to school.

"Now I can come to see my friends again."

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