Friday, March 27, 2009

Meeting the Mullah

Across the street from the Zabuli Girls’ School is a mosque with a madrassa, an Islamic religious school where boys study and memorize the Koran. Madrassas have earned a bad reputation of late—associated with producing militant Islamists who interpret religion in violent ways. In Pakistan especially, Taliban fighters are known to have been educated at Saudi-backed madrassas teaching Wahhabism, a particularly fiery brand of Islam.

But there are still madrassas, like this one in Deh Subz, where boys come not to be Taliban, but to become Talibs or teachers.

“The word Talib can be somewhat misleading here because Talibs are an important part of life in Afghanistan.” says Razia Jan, founder of the Zabuli School. Razia remembers Talibs coming to her home as a child after a death in the family. “There can be as many as 30 Talibs associated with a mosque, and after someone dies they come to your house one- by-one and recite different parts of the Koran. You feed them, and they go.”

Today, after Friday prayers, the mullah (think Catholic church monsignor) of the Deh Subz madrassa and twelve village elders* walked across the dirt road to meet with Razia, school administrators and teachers.

“I’m very proud to see this here,” the mullah said about the school. “But I think it would be good if you could add three classes for boys, too—maybe in the afternoon.”

Razia told them she’d consider it, but she’s more focused on their other request—adding another first grade class and a sixth grade class for girls. “The girls need more classes,” said one village elder who recognizes how good the education is here. He brought his own three daughters to register, and when the principal tested them, he was shocked to discover that his 12-year-old—who had gone through 5th grade in public school—could not even write her name. After a week at the Zabuli School she was able to write both her name and her father’s name.

Allowed to enter fourth grade, the girl is technically at a first grade level—but putting her in first grade at her age is forbidden by the Ministry of Education. Although many other students in this situation are denied entry—we witnessed two girls fail their entrance exam yesterday—school administrators decided it was more important to maintain a good relationship with the powerbrokers in the community. Without the support of the mullah and elders, nothing can be accomplished here. And a lot has already been done to earn their trust, and get them to back girls’ education.

It wasn’t always this way. When the school was being built the mullah and all the village elders pushed Razia to make it exclusive to boys. “They approached me right before we opened and said, ‘This is your last chance to make it a boys’ school,’” Razia recalls. She refused. When they told her that it was more important to educate boys because boys are the backbone of society, she argued, “Boys may be the backbone, but girls are the eyes. You are blind.”

*Village elders do have to be men, but they don’t have to be elderly. Among the twelve village elders who came to the meeting today, 5 were younger men whose jobs and income caused them to rise to prominence here.

Update: We learned the reason for the massive military police presence on the streets heading to Deh Subz yesterday. Some organized criminals from Tarakhel had spent the night attacking cars and robbing passengers.

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