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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Clandestine Teachers Still Afraid of Taliban

Education: Regime has left Kabul, but two sisters who taught girls fear they'll be punished.

November 15, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — With both sets of curtains drawn over the single window of the small upstairs room, it was safe to teach until the children got excited and their voices, most dangerously those of the girls, drifted out into the street below.

Then the teacher would pull out a thin stick wrapped in black electrical tape, with a white end like a magic wand, and hush the children back into silence. If they weren't quiet, she scolded, the Taliban would hear. And that would be the end of school.

For five years in a two-story house in central Kabul, two sisters secretly taught dozens of girls in defiance of a Taliban edict that said females couldn't go to school.

It was one of dozens of secret schools that taught girls across the Afghan capital, not as an organized underground network, but because many courageous women came to the same conclusion: They couldn't allow the next generation to be left behind.

The sisters risked arrest, and beatings, for teaching the girls from old textbooks that they had bought in the bazaar, and for writing on blackboards they had made from two pieces of plywood, painted black and nailed to the wall.

"I suffer when I see a girl who is not educated," Jamila, one of the sisters, said Wednesday. "Girls had no place to study, and we thought to ourselves, 'Tomorrow, they are the future mothers.' "

Jamila, 48, and her sister Najia, 37, asked that their last names not be published. Just one day after the Taliban forces abandoned the capital and fled into their Pushtun heartland to the south, the women were still afraid that someone might find a reason to punish them. It will take time before they lose their fear of strangers at the door.

"Whenever someone knocked hard on our door, our hearts started pounding fast, my face turned pale, because we'd heard the Taliban would beat people with sticks and cables," Jamila said. "They didn't consider one's dignity either. They simply beat her or put her in jail."

The sisters were just two of the many Kabul residents tentatively coming to the realization Wednesday that the extremist regime had lost its grip on their city, fleeing U.S. airstrikes and an opposition ground offensive.

Five years ago, the Northern Alliance lost the capital. On Sept. 27, 1996, as Kabul fell to the Taliban forces, an announcer on their Voice of Shariat radio read out one of the first of what would become increasingly bizarre lists of decrees handed down over the next five years.

"All those sisters who are working in government offices are hereby informed to stay at home until further notice," the order said, adding that any woman who ventured outdoors must be fully covered in a burka, from head to toe.

The Talibs, or religious students who had learned their harsh version of Islam in the schools of neighboring Pakistan, would permit women to learn from only one book: the Koran.

Among the tens of thousands of female civil servants sent home were 7,790 teachers. Sixty-three of Kabul's schools were shut down. Jamila and Najia were among the teachers who lost their jobs. Jamila was a widow and Najia was single, so there was no man in the house to support the two well-educated women.

Their only hope of feeding themselves was to set up their own school, and once that was decided, they couldn't turn away girls who wanted to learn but couldn't afford to pay the 30-cent monthly tuition.

The sisters started out with seven of the neighbors' children and a niece. As word spread, more students arrived until there were 170, from grades one through eight. Most were girls.

The children each walked to school alone to avoid drawing attention, but the room sometimes filled with 30 or 40 students: girls on one side, boys on the other. The youngest pupil was 5, the oldest 20.

"We had students who couldn't hold a pen," Jamila said, "and now they are in grade eight."

With so many students, the sisters could often only let them stay in class for 10 minutes to half an hour before making room for the next class.

"We gave them a lot of homework," Jamila said.

The girls were told to hide their books when they walked to school, and say they were going to a relative's home if anyone asked. Once past the sisters' wooden side gate with its heavy chain, the pupils walked up a set of stone stairs directly to the door of their classroom.

A week's supply of chalk cost their teachers about $1, they said. "We bought U.S.-made chalk ourselves," she said. "It was the best quality."

One of the sisters' first students was their niece Alai Ahmadi, 13, who started in first grade when the Taliban took Kabul. Now she is in the eighth grade. Her mother, Sakina Ahmadi, was head nurse at the Shahrara Clinic, which is supported by Save the Children, until she was fired by a Taliban order three years ago.

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