Last refuge of women's freedom to learn
By Rory McCarthy in Faizabad - The Australian 22nov00
ALONG the classroom wall at the Makhfi school in Faizabad hang a line of blue burqas, the all-enveloping cloaks worn by the women of Afghanistan.
Sitting beneath them, their handbags next to their brightly polished shoes, are perhaps the country's last educated generation of young women.
Faizabad, in the remote north-east, is the only main town still outside the control of the Taliban, the Islamic militia who seized the Afghan capital Kabul four years ago.
Under tough Taliban religious edicts, women are forbidden from working and girls' schools and colleges have been closed.
The students at the Makhfi school speak a language of resistance that is increasingly rare in Afghanistan.
"Girls have a right to go to school, girls have a right to work," said Khatera, 18, a student. "The Taliban are very bad. We are very afraid of them."
Troops from the religious militia have made significant military gains in the past three months and are now closing in on the area around Faizabad, desperate to bring the whole country under their control.
"If the Taliban capture Faizabad, there will be no work for women, no going to school," said Zaigul, 35, a female teacher at the school. "We will just be sitting at home doing nothing."
Under a World Food Program scheme, the 1044 children at the Makhfi school are given wheat if they attend class regularly. Girls get an extra five litres of cooking oil a month as an incentive. Few children now dare miss a day at school.
Teachers, who in the past have been paid little or nothing at all, also receive wheat.
In an area blighted by drought and destroyed by two decades of war, payments in food are as welcome as cash.
Faizabad is little more than a large, dusty village in a valley of the Hindu Kush and divided by the cold waters of the Kokcha River, which flows east from the Oxus.
Here women are as free as they can be in Afghanistan. They can work and walk alone in the streets. Yet outdoors they still must wear the burqa, the cloak that covers their hair, face and body.
When no men are watching they flick the burqa back to uncover their faces in a small sign of resistance that would earn them a beating in Taliban areas.
Even mixed classes at Faizabad's few schools are forbidden.
Burhanuddin Rabbani, the ousted Afghan president who controls this area, is himself a deeply religious man and a former lecturer in Islamic law. He has promised the burqa will go as soon as the war is ended.
"Our policies to women are quite clear," Mr Rabbani said in an interview. "They are equal. We have enabled women to work in government offices and to get an education."
But teachers are paid less than $US1 ($1.95) a month, and often wait months for their salaries. Many have long since given up trying to teach.
Despite these hurdles many Afghan women have fled to Faizabad to escape the Taliban.
Lida, 22, moved from her home in the bustling city of Mazar-i-Sharif when the Taliban arrived. Now she is in the second year of a medical degree at Badakshan Medical College in Faizabad.
There are few textbooks for the college's 180 students, no laboratories and no electricity, but it is still the best medical school left in Afghanistan.
"Since we are living in an Islamic country we want to have the veil to observe Islamic law. But we don't want to be kept inside our homes," she said.
"At least in Faizabad it is possible for women to have an education, to work and to walk outside their homes.
"Women living in Taliban-controlled areas are not free. I ask you is it a sin to be a woman? If women bring such shame to Afghanistan, then why don't they exterminate us all?"
Those with money could join the 6 million Afghans who have moved abroad since the war began two decades ago and find a better life among the refugees in Pakistan, Iran, Europe and the US. But for these students, escaping into exile is out of the question.
"In the future we will become doctors and treat the sick people of our country," said 21-year-old Bazia. "We will stay and resist the Taliban until the last drop of our blood. We cannot leave now."
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