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Taliban bans education for girls in Swat Valley

- 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.

About 3,500 students are attending Saidu Sharif Degree College for girls. The town also has a medical college and several other colleges and schools.

"Many girls want to continue their studies; however, their parents are not allowing them due to fear of militants," said Ziauddin Yousafzai, a representative of the private-schools association in the town.

"We cannot do anything. The government cannot do anything," he said. "Only an announcement by militants on the FM radio withdrawing from their decision would convince parents to allow their daughters to attend schools."

He said the private-schools association has urged the militants, through newspaper advertisements, to revoke their decision.

Even Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has distanced itself from the Swat militants' decision.

Two days after the ban was announced, TTP spokesman Mulvi Omar told reporters that the organization does not oppose girls' education.

"We are in touch with leaders of Swat Taliban and hope they will revoke the ban," he said.

However, Swat militants refused to withdraw the ban. Muslim Khan, a spokesman, said girls would be allowed to attend school up to the fourth grade under certain conditions: Schools, for instance, must be single-sex, including the teachers. The average age of a fourth-grade student in Pakistan is 9.

Mr. Yousafzai condemned the Pakistani government for its ineffectiveness.

"Fazlullah, Shah Doran and Muslim Khan are the real kings of Swat," he said. "Whatever they say will happen."

Sardar Hussain Babak, education minister for the province, said the fault rests with the militants who, he said, work for unnamed foreign elements.

"If they say they are against United States, then what is the logic behind blowing up schools in Swat?" he said. "No American is studying in those schools. Only the children of Swat are studying there."

Mr. Babak said the provincial government is committed to providing security and education to the people of Swat.

"We believe that the army shall vigorously carry out the military operation," he said.

The government operation against militants in Swat began in November 2007. However, almost 80 percent of Swat is still under the direct control or influence of militants.

More than 1,200 civilians have been killed and 2,000 wounded by suicide bombings, targeted killings by militants and clashes between security forces and militants since the operation began.

The violence also has claimed the lives of more than 400 security officials and about 700 militants, officials say.

Taliban officials have established their own courts, announcing and implementing punishment in public places. Enemies have been beheaded, and accused adulterers have been stoned to death.

Their influence is not limited to Swat. On Dec. 28, a suicide bomber struck a polling station during elections in the Buner district, next to Swat. More than 40 people were killed.

Swat militants took responsibility, saying the attack was revenge for an incident a few months earlier when locals in Buner killed five militants.