October 22, 2001

Women and learning

By LAURA KING, Associated Press

QUETTA, Pakistan (October 22, 2001 4:03 p.m. EDT) - Off a dusty, clamorous street, in a small room bare except for a irregular chalkboard in the corner and a woven mat on the floor, a dozen female voices rise in a hesitant chorus: "The... snow... is ... melting."

These girls and women, all Afghan refugees, are doing something they could not have done at home, on pain of death: They're learning.

Harsh Taliban rule, grinding poverty or conservative tribal tradition kept all of them out of the classroom back in Afghanistan. Many are from families that have lost everything they own - but here in Pakistan, they at least have a second chance at schooling.

Their slender, lively teacher, Aziza Khari, is a refugee too - a one-time schoolmistress at home, before the Taliban decreed that women could no longer teach or study.

"My students cried so hard back then, when our school in Afghanistan was closed," Khari said softly while students worked on math problems, veiled heads bent over their flimsy copybooks.

"It broke my heart to see it happen. So when I see these pupils wanting so much to learn, so happy, it makes up a little bit for that sadness."

Eighty students a day study in two-hour shifts in this tiny makeshift classroom. They sit cross-legged and barefoot on the hard floor, listening intently, a few chewing their pencil tips in concentration.

It is a standard first-grade curriculum, and they are learning simple sentences, addition and subtraction. Khari, the teacher, coaxes a shy teenager in a long black veil to the blackboard and points to a sentence in Persian, widely spoken on both sides of the Afghan border and a common language among ethnic Hazaras.

"The bear ... has black fur," she whispers.

"That is exactly right," her teacher says.

The students range in age from Gulnisa, a bright-eyed 12-year-old, to women in their 30s like Hafiza, the star pupil. "She is the very hardest working - you cannot make her stop," her teacher said proudly.

Gulnisa had almost a year of school before Taliban anti-education decrees took effect. She was only 7 then. "I can remember a little - like something in a dream," she said shyly, ducking her head.

Others, like Hafiza, had never been to school at all. "I came from a conservative family - no one thought women needed to be educated," she said.

She is the mother of eight children, ranging in age from nine months to 16 years. Five of them are daughters who have never attended school either.

The older ones already work in a carpet factory to help support the family. Hafiza has one goal: to learn to read, and then teach them all.

Her husband, a laborer with only a little schooling himself, supports her in this aim. Back home, he did not want to go against his elders and tradition, but things are different here.

"We want all our children to have a better life, and to do that, we must learn," she said in a voice that was steely with determination.

The school is free of charge, with simple textbooks provided, which is what makes it possible for these pupils to be here. None comes from a family that could afford tuition fees or books.

A group called the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, sponsors the school. It runs on a shoestring budget: rent of about $10 a month for the classroom, and salaries of $8 a month for the four teachers.

Even such small expenditures stretch the group's resources to the limit. They hope eventually to be able to afford desks and larger classrooms. And to take on more pupils - the school has been in operation for three months, and there is already a long waiting list.

Inside Afghanistan, RAWA runs secret schools for girls and women, an extremely dangerous undertaking. Teachers, and perhaps students as well, could face execution if caught by the Taliban.

Here in Pakistan, the group operates freely, but organizers keep a low profile because of death threats from Taliban loyalists and fundamentalist religious groups.

Most of the opposition to the group's work in Pakistan - running schools, clinics and shelters for Afghan women - is centered in border cities like Peshawar in the north, and Quetta, the closest Pakistani town to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, across the border.

As the day's lesson is ending, students cluster around their teacher, asking questions, reluctant to let her go. Outside, on a cement porch, the next group of students is already waiting patiently.

"What I want is to learn," said a 15-year-old named Sharifa, ready to hurry into the classroom. "It's what I love the most in this life."

Copyright 2001 APonline