Attacks on Girls’ Schools on the Rise as Taliban Make Gains

New York Times, May 20, 2019

By Najim Rahim and David Zucchino

NAW DEH, Afghanistan — Just before midterm exams in January, Mohammad Sadiq Halimi, the deputy education director for Farah Province in western Afghanistan, was given an ultimatum by local Taliban leaders.

Fire all male teachers at girls’ schools, Mr. Halimi said he was told. Replace them with women — men should not teach girls, the militants said.

The government did as it was told. “We didn’t want to give them an excuse” to shut down the schools by force, Mr. Halimi said.

But Farah’s schools were not spared. Last month, on two successive nights, armed men on motorcycles set fire to two girls’ schools just outside Farah city, the provincial capital. Both were badly damaged and the teaching materials inside were destroyed, ending classes indefinitely for nearly 1,700 girls. Graffiti on a nearby wall read, “Long live the Islamic Emirate” — the Taliban’s name for their movement.

Four other girls’ schools in the province have been attacked in the past several months, said Muhibullah Muhib, a police spokesman.

Besides terrifying teachers, students and their families, the attacks have renewed larger fears of a return to the repressive days of Taliban rule, as the militants and the United States try to negotiate a peace deal. Until the Taliban government was toppled in 2001, girls’ education was outlawed and women were confined to their homes.

Today, more than 3.6 million Afghan girls are enrolled in school and 100,000 women attend universities, according to education ministries. But about 400 schools for both boys and girls have closed over the past several months for “security reasons,” including armed conflict and Taliban threats or attacks, the ministry said.

The Farah bombings came after Taliban leaders in Qatar, where the talks with the Americans have been held, said they were committed to women’s rights under Islamic law, including the right to education.

But in Farah, the school attacks underscored deep misgivings among Afghan women that any future government that included the Taliban would once again ban or limit education for girls.

Sosan Aubi, 38, a teacher at one of the schools that were burned last month, said she and other teachers had been optimistic about the chances for peace because of the Qatar talks. “But after this explosion all of us have lost our hope,” she said.

Nayab Khan, a village grocer whose sisters and daughters had attended one of the burned schools, said he didn’t trust the Taliban’s promises.

“They say they have changed for the good, but we see them blowing up schools and preventing girls from getting education,” Mr. Khan said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, denied responsibility for the attacks and said the militants would investigate and punish those involved. If the schools reopen, “there won’t be any threat from our side,” Mr. Mujahid said.

But angry local residents pointed out that the schools were in areas controlled by the Taliban. They also said government officials had been unable to reach the schools to inspect the damage.

Dadullah Qani, a member of the Farah provincial council, said the attacks demonstrated that the government was losing control of the province.

“The security situation here is deteriorating day by day,” Mr. Qani said. “There is no difference between the government and ordinary people — both are helpless to prevent such attacks.”

Provincial government officials and village elders said the attacks exposed a split among the militants, with many Taliban civil authorities willing to tolerate girls’ education but some military commanders opposed. The Taliban operate so-called shadow governments in areas controlled or contested by the militants, taxing residents and establishing offices that govern day-to-day affairs.

“Some of them are O.K. with girls’ education and some of them are against it,” said Mr. Halimi, the deputy education director.

Village elders said a delegation met with government officials in Farah city to demand they rebuild the schools, but were told that the government was powerless to intervene. They said they were advised to contact local Taliban leaders.

Mr. Halimi said a group of about 50 villagers was considering temporarily resuming classes in tents. Local residents said Taliban education officials had contacted provincial school leaders to discuss the reopenings, but asked for time to reach an accommodation with Taliban military commanders.

Mohammad Azimi, the provincial education director, said he had asked parents and students to help reopen the schools.

At Sher Ali Khan school in the village of Naw Deh, about eight miles from Farah city, the windows had been blown out and the walls had buckled. Inside, burned desks and school papers were strewn around.

At the school entrance was a plaque engraved with Afghan and American flags and a message saying the U.S. Agency for International Development had helped build the school in 2005. Someone had tried to scratch out the American flag. (The agency’s office in Kabul said it did not currently fund the school but that it may have been a past project.)

Abdul Rahman, the school principal, said armed five men wearing masks tied up the night watchman, splashed fuel inside the school and set it alight on the night of April 15. They also detonated a small explosive device inside the school office.

School records, student supplies and academic textbooks were burned, but the attackers spared Islamic religious texts, Mr. Rahman said.

“Now all the girls are scared,” Mr. Rahman said. “Even if we reopen the school, maybe they won’t come anymore.”

Abdul Hamid Haidari, 45, a shopkeeper, said his three daughters attended Sher Ali Khan school. He said his daughter Roya, 18, was scheduled to graduate this year and pursue a career as a teacher, but that it was now unlikely to happen because her school transcripts had been destroyed.

Mr. Haidari said Roya and her sisters burst into tears when told about the attack. He said he was determined to educate his children — his daughters and his four sons — and had sacrificed to place them in schools despite the precarious security climate.

“I was hoping the peace talks would change the situation,” he said. “But now that our school has been blown up, I’m not so hopeful anymore.”

Mr. Qani, the provincial council member, described a climate of fear and mistrust in the wake of the school attacks. He said they may have had the desired effect: Even if the schools reopen, many parents are afraid to send their girls back to them.

“Today they blow up school buildings,” Mr. Qani said. “Tomorrow will they attack students?”

Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.