“They [Taliban] are savages and we’re like a helpless herd, with no one to protect us,” said Sikander Ali, father of four girls, speaking to IRIN on the phone from Swat valley.
He was reacting to news that militants had ordered a ban on girls’ education from 15 January.
Swat valley (in the North West Frontier Province), which has a population of 1.8 million and lies some 150km northeast of Peshawar, has been a hotbed of Islamist militancy for the past two years.
Ali, a government official, had heard the recent warning by Shah Dauran, deputy leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) of Maulana Fazalullah on a clandestine FM radio station.
“He said we must take our daughters out of all schools - private or public - by 15 January 2009 at the latest. Failing this, he said the schools will be bombed and violators would face death. He also said they will throw acid into the faces of our daughters if we don’t comply, like their counterparts did in Afghanistan some months back.”
“It is feared that the extremists will carry out their threats,” said Ibrash Pasha, provincial coordinator of the Pakistan Coalition for Education (PCE).
If this happens an estimated 40,000 girls will be kept out of school, said Dawn newspaper.
For now the schools are on winter vacation until February.
However, following the TTP threats, the private school Ali’s daughter goes to has re-opened and resumed classes for Grade 12 “so that they can complete as much coursework as they can by 15 January, as they have to sit for their board examination in April,” the father said.
Against Western education
“We have nothing against girls going to school,” said Muslim Khan, a spokesman of the TTP, speaking to IRIN from an undisclosed location in Swat.
“What we are saying is that the education being given to our daughters in these schools is Western and not in keeping with the teachings of Islam. It is only making us wayward,” said Khan, who studied till 12th grade and confessed to having no Koranic teaching.
“Before they become engineers and teachers and doctors, these young people must be trained for jihad,” said the 54-year-old TTP spokesperson.
“We have never bombed schools and never threatened to kill girls who defy our orders. We have also said that primary schools can remain open as long as the girls and female teachers observe `purdah’ [cover their bodies].”
“He is lying; it’s double-speak,” said Hazir Gul, who runs Swat Participatory Council, a health NGO. “Their leaders have often given interviews to the media celebrating the bombing of schools.”
“If they are allowing girls to study in primary schools, this is a new development; it seems this is a U-turn,” said Ali.
An appeal by the Private School Owner’s Association appeared in local newspaper Shumaal on 29 December asking the TTP to reconsider their ban.
It said the association had in the past always cooperated with all the demands of the TTP regarding `purdah’. It had segregated male and female students, changed boys uniforms from trousers and shirt to `shalwar kameeze’, and made changes in the curriculum in keeping with Islamic teachings.
“Convincing parents to send their children, especially the girl-child, to school was already an uphill task. Years of hard work put into mobilising rural communities to educate their girls has come to nought. This fear will give them an excuse to keep their girls at home or make them work in the fields or for cattle-rearing,” said the PCE’s Pasha.
Ali said the whole community is scared stiff: “They just kill you on the slightest pretext, and make an example of you. No one dares disobey them,” said Ali.
He said neither the police nor the army intervenes or protects them; people feel completely isolated and unprotected.
In the past year education has been severely disrupted in the valley. There have been unannounced curfews, schools have been blown up or set on fire. The worst example was the attack on Sangota Public School in October.
Herald, a monthly newsmagazine, reported in August 2008 that there were 566 girls’ schools in Swat, including four government higher secondary schools, 22 high schools, 51 middle schools and 489 primary schools. Of these, 131 have either been set alight or closed, rendering 17,200 girls school-less.
In the past year over 150 schools (most of them girls’ schools), were destroyed - albeit when the pupils were absent.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions