- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009

ISLAMABAD

Taliban militants in a former tourist region of Pakistan have banned girls from school beginning this month, claiming female education is contrary to Islam.

“From January 15, girls will not be allowed to attend schools,” Mullah Shah Doran, the Taliban second in command in the scenic Swat Valley, announced in a recent radio address. Mullah Doran said educating girls is “un-Islamic.”

The announcement is a further blow to a system in which female enrollment already has plunged because of ongoing violence. Three years ago, more than 120,000 girls attended schools and colleges in the region, which has a population of 1.8 million. Now only about 40,000 are enrolled.

“More than 30 percent [of the] girls dropped out of educational institutions in 2006 and 2007 due to speeches of [militant leader] Mullah Fazlullah on his FM radio against girls’ education,” said an official in the Swat education department, who asked not to be named to avoid becoming a target for militants.

“Half of the remaining girls dropped out or could not attend their studies due to attacks on their schools and colleges.”

Officials estimate that militants have blown up or burned 134 schools and colleges in the past year alone, more than 90 of them institutions for girls.

“Most of these schools are totally destroyed. Only 15 or 16 among them were partially damaged and could be repaired,” the education official said.The measure mirrors a policy of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, which shocked the world long before al Qaeda made Afghanistan its headquarters and executed the Sept. 11 attacks.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until it was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001, it barred girls from attending school. Women were banned from appearing in public unless completely covered, their faces hidden and accompanied by an immediate male relative.

In recent years, the Taliban branch in Pakistan has gained strength steadily in the North West Frontier Province, surviving clashes with the Pakistani military and extending its rule beyond the tribal areas to the Swat Valley.

The valley, with its snowcapped peaks, once was known as the Switzerland of Asia, and it attracted tourists from throughout South Asia and beyond. In recent years, it has been off limits to outsiders.

Militants in Swat are led by Mullah Fazlullah. They associate themselves with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella group of Pakistani militants headed by Baitullah Mehsud, whom Pakistani authorities have accused of orchestrating the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Mullah Fazlullah has an illegal FM radio station on which he or his deputy gives speeches. Lately, Mullah Doran has been broadcasting every evening for more than an hour.

Students in the area already have lost a year of academic credits because fighting has closed schools.

A college student in the main town of Swat, Saidu Sharif, who asked not to be named, told The Washington Times that even before the Taliban decree, her parents were discouraging her from continuing studies because of security concerns.

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