For southern Afghan women, learning is for the brave

By Peter Graff

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, June 12 (Reuters) - Yesterday she received ten threatening phone calls. From ten different numbers.

"Some say, 'Where are you going? Why are you going to that English class?' Some say, 'We will kill you,'" said Noorzia Mahboob, 50, a former school teacher, now herself a pupil at English clashes in a women's centre in Lashkar Gah, capital of Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand.

"I don't really think it's the Taliban. If they wanted to kill me or kidnap me, they probably would have done it by now. I think it's the people from the town," she adds.

Mahboob, who has run unsuccessfully in a provincial election, said she comes to the classes not just to improve her English, but to act as a role model.

"It is a way of persuading other women to take steps toward learning," she says.

Under the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until 2001 and still control some parts of the south, teaching girls was forbidden.

Mahboob ran a school with about 150 pupils, both boys and girls. The Taliban kicked her out of a government building, but she secretly continued teaching in a private house.

Today, with pro-government authorities safely installed in the provincial capital, the Lashkar Gah women's centre operates inside a heavily guarded compound of government buildings.

About 70 women, ranging from pre-teen girls to grandmothers, study English. Last year, a driver who brought women to the centre was murdered, said Mahboob.

"There was a rumour he was bringing women into the PRT," she said, referring to a foreign military base. "People did not understand, and they killed him."


Far from the town centre, in Mukhtar, a camp of mud and straw huts on the riverbanks, 18-year-old refugee Maha Buba teaches Pashto and Dari languages, English and mathematics to boys and girls packed into a tiny mud-walled classroom.

The children and teachers are from mainly ethnic Hazara families who fled four years ago from Taliban-held territory in the high mountains in the north of the province.

"Under the Taliban we were not allowed to have schools, but we studied in our homes," she said, covering her face while talking to a male reporter and appearing little larger than the children who milled about at her feet outside the school.

"The Taliban were fighting and killing people. They were saying: 'you must give us men as fighters, or money'," she said.

Today the mud-walled school remains under constant threat, said its director, Said Ahmed Shah.

"Once people came and said: 'Why are you teaching in this place?'," he said.

"They call me. People are trying to take this land from us. They want to grow things and build houses on this land."

At the women's centre back in the town centre, Malalai, 24, a pupil, has begun teaching computer classes on a few machines donated by the United States.

Recently the computers were hooked up to the Internet, and she started learning how to e-mail and send photographs.

"The world is developing very quickly, especially Internet technology," she said. "After learning a bit of English, we are not allowed to go to college or university, but this is a chance to keep learning."

Mahboob listens and nods.

"If circumstances allowed us, Afghan women could reach the sky," she says. "Let them try to stop us. We are not afraid of death."

(To read Reuters reporter Peter Graff's blog from southern Afghanistan, go to ghanistan/)


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