Fight­ing bul­lets with books

Friday - - Photography -

Get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion in Afghanistan has never been easy for girls and with this year’s im­pend­ing troop with­drawal, many fear the gains of re­cent years may be lost. One woman who has proved that school­ing is the big­gest weapon against war and op­pres­sion since open­ing clan­des­tine classes un­der the noses of Tal­iban lead­ers in 1999, now openly runs 18 schools across nine prov­inces, pro­vid­ing qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion to more than 3,000 girls and 100 boys. Anthea Ay­ache speaks to her

The beige walls of the empty Afghan hall­way turned murky yel­low long ago, marked today by scars of war and poverty. Its brick­work lies bare in patches, the plas­ter in which it was once cov­ered lit­ter­ing the cor­ri­dor’s floor, a tell­tale sign of mor­tar fire and this coun­try’s con­tin­u­ous con­flict. At the end, ad­ja­cent to a barred open win­dow, stands a lone, de­cay­ing door to a small dark room where only si­lence hangs be­tween the bul­let-rid­dled walls and paint-flake-cov­ered car­pet.

This sin­gle base­ment room off a path­way in a Kabul back street lies empty, derelict and un­re­mark­able, no vis­i­ble sign left to in­di­cate its for­mer glory. For once, be­fore the 2001 US-backed in­va­sion of the Tal­iban­run Afghanistan, this was a sanc­tu­ary for young girls de­prived of an ed­u­ca­tion by an op­pres­sive regime. A space in which they could, at great risk of be­ing caught, study and equip them­selves with knowl­edge un­til the time when they could once again rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety.

This room was once one of five clan­des­tine class­rooms set up in 1999 by Afghan-born and raised Hassina Sher­jan, a woman who to this day sees ed­u­ca­tion as the best weapon with which to rid her coun­try from a plague of ter­ror­ism and in­sur­gency.

“If peo­ple are ed­u­cated they can think for them­selves and will know what they want,” says the 53-year-old founder of Aid for Afghanistan Ed­u­ca­tion, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that for more than a decade has been striv­ing to res­tore girls’ ed­u­ca­tion in the coun­try. “Ob­vi­ously the ex­trem­ists don’t want in­de­pen­dent thought; they want to keep peo­ple in the dark.”

Hassina’s vi­sion to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion for girls in a coun­try

‘The Afghanistan I re­mem­ber was safe, peace­ful and green… there were trees all over’

reel­ing from civil war and a hard-line Tal­iban regime arose in 1995 af­ter the death of her fa­ther. It had been 17 years since the Sher­jan fam­ily had fled the im­pend­ing Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan to the US, and Hassina re­mained trou­bled over her fa­ther Nia­mat­ul­lah’s last words. “I want you to live just like you want to,” he had told her on his deathbed.

Com­pelled to ful­fil her fa­ther’s wish of re­turn­ing to their home­land and seek­ing what it was ex­actly she de­sired from life, Hassina set out for the Afghanistan bor­der. She was un­able to en­ter the coun­try due to the dan­gers posed by a frac­tious civil war still tear­ing the coun­try apart and so she in­stead chose to visit Afghan refugee camps on the bor­der in Pak­istan’s Pe­shawar prov­ince. “I met some­one there who was run­ning lit­er­acy cour­ses in­side the camps and I ac­com­pa­nied her,” she says. “I was faced with some truly shock­ing scenes and sto­ries be­cause I didn’t know un­til then that re­ally ed­u­ca­tion was not avail­able for all Afghans.”

Faced with dis­turb­ing scenes in­clud­ing a woman beg­ging her to help choose which of her twin chil­dren to keep be­cause she could not af­ford both, and im­pov­er­ished women in their 50s un­able to write even their own names, Hassina re­alised the Afghanistan of her mem­ory and that of her fa­ther’s tales was but a dis­tant dream.

The coun­try where she had com­pleted her high-school stud­ies at a time when girls and boys had equal ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and when women were en­cour­aged to flour­ish sim­ply didn’t ex­ist any more.

“My mother [Amina] opened the coun­try’s first florist in Kabul and she worked for sev­eral years at the Amer­i­can em­bassy,” she says. “The Afghanistan I re­mem­ber was safe, peace­ful, and green. Kabul was quiet with only a few cars, there were trees all over and it was clean and pol­lu­tion free.”

A far cry from the tales of war told by some half of the pop­u­la­tion who had fled the civil war and who now filled these vast, for­saken camps.

With a con­sum­ing sense of moral obli­ga­tion to­wards the women she left be­hind in the 150 des­per­ate en­camp­ments lit­ter­ing the Afghan bor­der, Hassina felt com­pelled upon re­turn­ing to the US to help her home­land. Think­ing that it was only luck that had sep­a­rated her des­tiny from theirs, Hassina knew she could very eas­ily have suf­fered the same fate. “I could have been any one of those women sat in that refugee camp,” she ad­mits.

The 35-year-old set up meet­ings with fel­low pro­fes­sional com­pa­tri­ots in or­der to share her ex­pe­ri­ences and de­vise a so­lu­tion. “We re­alised that per­haps the lack of ed­u­ca­tion was the real rea­son the coun­try was where it was,” she says, ex­plain­ing why they de­cided to es­tab­lish ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes within the camps.

A state of gender apartheid

A year af­ter Hassina’s trip to the bor­der camps, in 1996 the Tal­iban seized con­trol of Kabul and within a year had plunged two-thirds of the coun­try into a state of gender apartheid in which fe­males were stripped of ba­sic hu­man rights.

Women who had pre­vi­ously had the free­dom to do as they wished, were abruptly banned from work or an ed­u­ca­tion, had ac­cess to ba­sic health­care cur­tailed, were for­bid­den to leave their homes or wan­der the streets and un­con­di­tion­ally re­quired to wear the niqab, a full-face cov­er­ing burqa. Vi­o­la­tion of any of these rules could re­sult in a range of cruel pun­ish­ments in­clud­ing flog­ging,

In this school in the Par­wan

prov­ince, north of Kabul, in­de­pen­dent

thought is en­cour­aged

Hassina Sher­jan loves her home­land and wants to see it

flour­ish again

Many of Afghanistan’s chil­dren strug­gle to en­rol in school

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