Monday, January 19, 2009

The bravery of Afghan schoolgirls

As Norman Geras correctly says, this is "a story of courage against moral barbarity." (Also highlighted by erudito at Thinking-Out-Aloud and by Terry Glavin.)
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — One morning two months ago, Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets to the local girls school when a man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question.

“Are you going to school?”

Then the man pulled Shamsia’s burqa from her head and sprayed her face with burning acid. Scars, jagged and discolored, now spread across Shamsia’s eyelids and most of her left cheek. These days, her vision goes blurry, making it hard for her to read.

But if the acid attack against Shamsia and 14 others — students and teachers — was meant to terrorize the girls into staying home, it appears to have completely failed.

Today, nearly all of the wounded girls are back at the Mirwais School for Girls, including even Shamsia, whose face was so badly burned that she had to be sent abroad for treatment. Perhaps even more remarkable, nearly every other female student in this deeply conservative community has returned as well — about 1,300 in all.

“My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed,” said Shamsia, 17, in a moment after class. Shamsia’s mother, like nearly all of the adult women in the area, is unable to read or write. “The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.” [....]
The background was explained in a December 22 piece by Helene Gayle, President of CARE USA ("In Afghanistan, Education Under Attack"):
Few things symbolize progress in the fight against poverty better than the face of an educated girl. And I was fortunate enough to see hundreds of them during a trip to Afghanistan in 2006. Those faces, eager and alert, lit up the courtyard of a new school built to educate 1,000 girls in central Afghanistan's Bamian province.

Gone were the days of Taliban rule, when girls were forbidden to study and women weren't allowed to teach. Afghanistan's future leaders could learn -- out in the open.

Perhaps that is why last month's brutal attack on a group of Afghan schoolgirls in the southern city of Kandahar was so heartbreaking. The students were walking to school in uniforms. Two men wielding water pistols drove by on motorcycles and sprayed battery acid.

They took aim at that same symbol of progress, the one that has inspired me and so many others.

At least three of the girls were hospitalized for severe burns on their faces, according to media reports. Afghan authorities later reported that they had arrested 10 Taliban militants in connection with the attack.

One of the girls spoke courageously from her hospital bed, with yellow ointment covering an eye damaged by the acid. "I will go to my school even if they kill me," she told reporters. "My message for the enemies is that if they do this 100 times, I am still going to continue my studies."

The world must stand behind her. The people of Afghanistan, if given the proper support, can produce a generation of educated students--boys and girls--capable of lifting their country up again. [....]
Let's hope so.

--Jeff Weintraub
=========================
New York Times
January 13, 2009
Afghan Girls, Scarred by Acid, Defy Terror, Embracing School
By Dexter Filkins

[Photos here.]

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — One morning two months ago, Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets to the local girls school when a man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question.

“Are you going to school?”

Then the man pulled Shamsia’s burqa from her head and sprayed her face with burning acid. Scars, jagged and discolored, now spread across Shamsia’s eyelids and most of her left cheek. These days, her vision goes blurry, making it hard for her to read.

But if the acid attack against Shamsia and 14 others — students and teachers — was meant to terrorize the girls into staying home, it appears to have completely failed.

Today, nearly all of the wounded girls are back at the Mirwais School for Girls, including even Shamsia, whose face was so badly burned that she had to be sent abroad for treatment. Perhaps even more remarkable, nearly every other female student in this deeply conservative community has returned as well — about 1,300 in all.

“My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed,” said Shamsia, 17, in a moment after class. Shamsia’s mother, like nearly all of the adult women in the area, is unable to read or write. “The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.”

In the five years since the Mirwais School for Girls was built here by the Japanese government, it appears to have set off something of a social revolution. Even as the Taliban tighten their noose around Kandahar, the girls flock to the school each morning. Many of them walk more than two miles from their mud-brick houses up in the hills.

The girls burst through the school’s walled compound, many of them flinging off head-to-toe garments, bounding, cheering and laughing in ways that are inconceivable outside — for girls and women of any age. Mirwais has no regular electricity, no running water, no paved streets. Women are rarely seen, and only then while clad in burqas that make their bodies shapeless and their faces invisible.

And so it was especially chilling on Nov. 12, when three pairs of men on motorcycles began circling the school. One of the teams used a spray bottle, another a squirt gun, another a jar. They hit 11 girls and 4 teachers in all; 6 went to the hospital. Shamsia fared the worst.

The attacks appeared to be the work of the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement that is battling the government and the American-led coalition. Banning girls from school was one of the most notorious symbols of the Taliban’s rule before they were ousted from power in November 2001.

Building new schools and ensuring that children — and especially girls — attend has been one of the main objectives of the government and the nations that have contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Some of the students at the Mirwais school are in their late teens and early 20s, attending school for the first time. Yet at the same time, in the guerrilla war that has unfolded across southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban have made schools one of their special targets.

But exactly who was behind the acid attack is a mystery. The Taliban denied any part in it. The police arrested eight men and, shortly after that, the Ministry of Interior released a video showing two men confessing. One of them said he had been paid by an officer with the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency, to carry out the attack.

But at a news conference last week, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said there was no such Pakistani involvement.

One thing is certain: in the months before the attack, the Taliban had moved into the Mirwais area and the rest of Kandahar’s outskirts. As they did, posters began appearing in local mosques.

“Don’t Let Your Daughters Go to School,” one of them said.

In the days after the attack, the Mirwais School for Girls stood empty; none of the parents would let their daughters venture outside. That is when the headmaster, Mahmood Qadari, got to work.

After four days of staring at empty classrooms, Mr. Qadari called a meeting of the parents. Hundreds came to the school — fathers and mothers — and Mr. Qadari implored them to let their daughters return. After two weeks, a few returned.

So, Mr. Qadari, whose three daughters live abroad, including one in Virginia, enlisted the support of the local government. The governor promised more police officers, a footbridge across a busy nearby road and, most important, a bus. Mr. Qadari called another meeting and told the parents that there was no longer any reason to hold their daughters back.

“I told them, if you don’t send your daughters to school, then the enemy wins,” Mr. Qadari said. “I told them not to give in to darkness. Education is the way to improve our society.”

The adults of Mirwais did not need much persuading. Neither the bus nor the police nor the bridge has materialized, but the girls started showing up anyway. Only a couple of dozen girls regularly miss school now; three of them are girls who had been injured in the attack.

“I don’t want the girls sitting around and wasting their lives,” said Ghulam Sekhi, an uncle of Shamsia and her sister, Atifa, age 14, who was also burned.

For all the uncertainty outside its walls, the Mirwais school brims with life. Its 40 classrooms are so full that classes are held in four tents, donated by Unicef, in the courtyard. The Afghan Ministry of Education is building a permanent building as well.

The past several days at the school have been given over to examinations. In one classroom, a geography class, a teacher posed a series of questions while her students listened and wrote their answers on paper.

“What is the capital of Brazil?” the teacher, named Arja, asked, walking back and forth.

“Now, what are its major cities?”

“By how many times is America larger than Afghanistan?”

At a desk in the front row, Shamsia, the girl with the burned face, pondered the questions while cupping a hand over her largest scar. She squinted down at the paper, rubbed her eyes, wrote something down.

Doctors have told Shamsia that her face may need plastic surgery if there is to be any chance of the scars disappearing. It is a distant dream: Shamsia’s village does not even have regular electricity, and her father is disabled.

After class, Shamsia blended in with the other girls, standing around, laughing and joking. She seemed un-self-conscious about her disfigurement, until she began to recount her ordeal.

“The people who did this,” she said, “do not feel the pain of others.”

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