Pakistan: Talibanisation Threatens Girls' Schooling in the North West Frontier Province

"If you are a female teacher in the NWFP, there is a sense of danger. Often, militants have found the easiest way to close schools is by targeting teachers."
Ghazala Shaheen, 12, and her father have visited five schools in Peshawar today, and in the hot, mildly humid weather of Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s rugged North West Frontier Province (NWFP), they are now both thirsty and hungry.
"We live in the Swat Valley, in Malakand Agency, but now that there are so many threats to teachers and girl pupils there, we are planning to move to Peshawar," explains Ghazala's father, Jan Muhammad Khan, as he sits at the home of a relative gulping down his glass of water.

The Swat Valley, home to around 1.5 million people and about 150km northeast of Peshawar, has been the scene of some of the most fervent Islamic extremism in recent years.

Radical clerics like Maulana Fazlullah, who broadcasts a fiery brand of militant Islam over an illegal FM radio station, insist that a woman's place is in the home and that girls should not be sent to school at all.

Schools bombed

At least four girls’ schools have been bombed over the past 12 months, and many others, in towns across the NWFP, and even in Peshawar itself, have received threats in letters or telephone calls.

In April 2007, two schools in the town of Mardan, 35km northeast of Peshawar, were forced to close temporarily after teachers and students were warned they must don the 'burqa', the head-to-toe veil used by some Muslim women.

"If you are a female teacher in the NWFP, there is a sense of danger. Often, militants have found the easiest way to close schools is by targeting teachers," said Bushra Rehman, 42, a primary school teacher in Mardan.

Symptomatic of the atmosphere in Swat Valley is the fact that Jan Muhammad Khan himself feels compelled to grow his beard after barbers were warned to stop shaving them.

School enrolment up

Khan fears that if he continues to live in Swat, the education of his three daughters, two of them younger than Ghazala, could be adversely affected. However, he is convinced that educating girls is very important, "even if it is only so they can manage family life effectively and help their children," and despite the annual school fees in Peshawar of US $33.

Certainly, these perceptions are shared by many parents across the NWFP. In Pakistan, literacy figures for women have risen steadily since the 1990s. In the Swat area they have risen by 75 percent since 2002, with 30,000 more girls in schools. The provincial government, according to official data, allocated 70 percent of its education budget in 2002 to girls’ schools, creating at least 300 new schools for girls across the province.

While these efforts, backed by support from foreign donors who in many cases helped establish schools run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), helped push up enrolment levels, the recent resurgence in militant extremism has come as a blow.

“New sense of fear"

Estimates of how many girls have been affected by the radicals’ campaign against schools vary. Data maintained by NGOs active in education suggest at least 1,000 girls have permanently or temporarily been pulled out of schools over the past year as a direct or indirect consequence of the new threats.

"There are new challenges in the NWFP. Many of the teachers and pupils at our schools, especially in more remote areas, have a new sense of fear," said Maryam Bibi, founder of Khwendo Kor (Sister's home), which sets up schools for girls in NWFP areas where need is greatest.

Afrasiab Khattak, a rights activist and lawyer in Peshawar said: "Most people are very eager to educate girls." He blamed what he called "growing talibanisation" on the establishment's support for militant groups.

Government officials say the threat has so far not had any major impact on enrolment levels, and only "very few" girls have stopped going to school.

Parents “too afraid”

Pakistan's primary enrolment rate for girls is the lowest in South Asia, standing at 45 percent. Less than 50 percent of women are literate, and in parts of the NWFP, literacy levels for women drop to below 20 percent. This precarious situation means the threats to the schooling of girls in the NWFP represent something of a challenge. There is apprehension that the wave of extremism could spread. Imran Khan, the coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in Peshawar, said: "Certainly, there are more and more reports of attempts to keep girls out of school."

Shyly, speaking with her `dupatta’ (scarf) wrapped around her face, Ghazala said: "Many girls at school say their parents are too afraid to send them. They are trying to keep up with their studies at home, but it is hard." Ghazala is proud her own father is making so much effort to educate her and her sisters, and is ready to move to Peshawar to do so.

But she adds: "Most people cannot do this, as they are poor, and I fear for the future of the girls who have been driven out of school."

7 June 2007