Pakistan: Girls back to School in Swat

Girls in Swat have been "allowed" to go to school, but he issues a warning: they must be covered from head to toe on their way to school and back.
In 2007, Swat was overrun by armed Pakistani Taliban, who deliberately bombed schools, forced bareheaded women to wear burqas and men to grow beards in an attempt to impose a radical Islam, similar to that enforced by the former Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan. With the local administration unable to stop the Pakistani Taliban, Swat’s schoolchildren stayed home for nearly 18 months until this March.
"We hadn’t thought we would be in school ever again," confides Sheema, the grade 2 student of Government Girls Primary School in Odigram village, blushing shyly.

The daughter of a local butcher, she tells IPS that she wants to study so she can become a doctor and take care of people in her village.

In February 2009, the Pakistan government, in a desperate effort to sue for peace, capitulated to the Taliban demand that the Shariah (Islamic law) be imposed in Swat. In return, the Taliban said the bombings would stop, and schools could reopen.

Farzana, principal of the Government Girls High School in Kabal, 20 kms from the district headquarters of Mingora, says only 300 of her 850 students have come back.

Are they scared to rejoin, IPS asks her in an interview conducted amongst the ruins of her bombed school building in the town, a stronghold of the Taliban. Farzana chooses not to answer. "Most of them have forgotten what they had learnt," she says instead. "It will be very difficult for them to catch up with students in other parts of the province."

Dr Shamshad Begum, an alumni of the school and a gynecologist at Mingora’s Saidu Teaching Hospital, recalls how peaceful Swat was before it was taken over by the Taliban. With its high mountains and picturesque valleys, it was Pakistan’s tourist paradise with over 500 hotels, all of them closed since 2007.

"Let bygones be bygones," the doctor begs. "Students and teachers (should) be motivated to make a fresh start. Education is most important - it can make a marked difference in the lives of future generations!"

Before the breakdown of law and order in Swat, female literacy rate in Swat was 22.89 percent and male 52.79 percent (the national average for females is 45 percent). Over a million girls were enrolled in schools. Since March, some 500,000 have reported back to school, says the education minister of the NWFP, Sardar Hussain Babak.

"A total 188 girls’ schools and 97 boys’ schools were destroyed by Taliban since late 2007," according to district education officer Kameen Khan. This, he insists, is only a quarter of the schools for girls in Swat. Five hundred and sixty six girls’ schools, which include four high schools, are undamaged, and have reopened, he claims. School hours have been extended from six to eight hours, so girls can stay in school longer.

But for how long?

The Taliban’s spokesperson in Swat, Muslim Khan, who spent four years in the U.S. as a painter before returning in 2002, tells IPS: "Female education is against Islam. They (women and girls) are required to sit at home and not venture out."

Girls in Swat have been "allowed" to go to school, but he issues a warning: they must be covered from head to toe on their way to school and back.

In 2008, over a third of Swat’s 800,000 people left the district because of the fighting between the Taliban and the Pakistan military. Tens of thousands are crowded into camps for the internally displaced in the capital of the NWFP, Peshawar, some 120 kms from Mingora. Those who remained had no choice but to conform to Taliban diktat.

In Kabal, Ajmeer Khan, a mechanic with four children, thinks god has answered his prayers for peace. "I don’t have the money to send my children outside Swat. I can only afford government-run schools that charge a nominal fee."

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are very sceptical about the Swat "peace deal". "We are immensely concerned about female education in Swat," says Yasmin Bibi of Shirkat Gah, a national NGO with offices in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar. "Many parents are afraid to send their girls to school because of lack of protection."

Rakhshanda Naz of Aurat Foundation tells IPS: "We need female education (to bridge the gender gap). In Pakistan, women are second-class citizens. By denying them education, you are sending them back to the Stone Age!"

The mood in Swat, however, is very upbeat. "Now, there is a ray of hope that students will not suffer any further," says an optimistic teacher, Neelam Bibi, in the Government Girls High School in Matta. "The government as well as Taliban seem serious in facilitating female education."

Gul Fam, in grade 7 at the Girls Middle School, Charbagh, south of Mingora, says she could not "believe it when my classmate told me she had gone to school. The next day, I also started coming." Asked what it felt like, she says very quietly and very firmly: "I am enjoying it. Education is my passion."

27 April 2009

Source: IPS