Marriage spells the end of learning

In Afghanistan, the enforcement of a 1970s law banning married women from the classroom is setting back the female education cause

The Guardian
, November 29, 2003

Thousands of young Afghan women have been expelled from school simply because they are married. It's a big blow for female students, who had been denied the right to be educated under the hardline Taliban regime, and hoped for more opportunities under the transitional administration.

A law passed in the mid-70s prohibiting married women from attending high-school classes was upheld in September by President Hamed Karzai's government . . . Sayed Ahmad Sarwari, the deputy education minister, (said) he didn't know the exact number of women who have been expelled, but that it was "possibly more than two or three thousand".

After the Taliban was overthrown, one of the first signs that the authorities were putting the past behind them was the reopening of girls' schools - and while the law on married women remained, it was not implemented. Supporters of the legislation argue that the law protects unmarried girls in school from hearing explicit details about sex from their wedded classmates. Orders from the central authorities usually take months to be put into force, but some regions are already complying.

The proponents of the move defend it by saying that it is only meant to "protect unmarried girls from hearing explicit details about sex from their married classmates". The opponents say by this logic married men must also be banned from attending school. An Afghan woman TFT spoke with was livid. "And what would stop an unmarried woman from knowing about sex within the family circle or through friends outside the school. Would the government prevent girls from fraternizing with married women even at home?" she asks, adding: "This is just incredible."

After the Taliban were overthrown, one of the first signs that the authorities were putting the past behind them was the reopening of girls' schools. While the law on married women remained, it was not implemented while the liberal-minded Rasool Amin was the education minister. The ministry is now run by a leader of the Northern Alliance [Younis Qanoni].

Zakia Zaki, headmistress of Jebulo Seraj Girls' High School in the Parwan province, said, "Even though there were only a few married students in my school, they were very intelligent and wanted to carry on with their studies." Khalida, a former student in the northern Balkh province, said she would not have married if she knew about the law. "I didn't know that if I got married this would happen, otherwise I might have got married after my education."

Due to the ban on married students, many girls are defying parents now to marry them off while they are studying. Fahima Hadi, principal of Mariam High School in Kabul, told TFT sources some of her students are "so afraid of being expelled from school that they are now refusing to get married" before finishing their education.

The Friday Times (Pakistan),
November 21-27, 2003

Khurshid was among those recently banished from classes in Kapisa, a province just north of Kabul. "We thought that after the fall of the Taliban, the government would give priority to education, but unfortunately they are taking us toward a great darkness. We are very disappointed. Why expel us from school at a time when we are at the end of our education? We were told that because we were married we should leave school. On the day we were expelled all of us were crying," she said.

Mohammad Anwar, the headteacher of Ushtergram high school in Kapisa, said that he was merely doing the government's bidding.

Although married women are not permitted to attend classes, they are allowed to sit their final exams. "We still give them the opportunity to gain their certificates," said Mr Sarwari.

But this is of little compensation to women who had hoped that after the Taliban they would be granted the right to go to school, irrespective of their marital status. Zakia Zaki, the headteacher of Jebulo Seraj girls' high school in Parwan province, said, "Even though excluded women are few in Parwan, these women were very intelligent and they say that they would prefer not to have the grade and the certificate without an education."

Fahima Hadi, the headteacher of Marim high school in Kabul, added that some of her pupils were "so afraid they will be expelled from school, they are now refusing to get married".

Habiba Surabi, the women's affairs minister, said she sympathised with married female students and said that the authorities would do more to address their needs. "We are currently developing government- approved professional high schools (for married women) in four provinces, but they have not yet been inaugurated because of financial problems."

Elsewhere, international NGOs are also doing their best to better the plight of Afghanistan's lost generation of pupils, setting up literacy classes for girls who could not attend schools. But these classes, too, have been banned by religious leaders. Mawlawi Abdul Haq, a local ulema (Muslim scholar and religious leader), insisted that women should be denied education "because Allah says in the holy Koran that women should stay at home and not expose their beauty". At the literacy centres, the girls might be seen by male strangers visiting the classes, he said.

From the Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, November 5th issue.

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