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Long in Dark, Afghan Women Say to Read Is Finally to See

Long in Dark, Afghan Women Say to Read Is Finally to See (

September 22, 2002

Long in Dark, Afghan Women Say to Read Is Finally to See


MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, Sept. 19 — The female voices ring out clear and confident across the courtyard as a class recites the Afghan alphabet, "Alef, Be, Te . . ." But the surprise is that inside the simple mud-brick house, the pupils sitting on the floor before their teacher are adult women, some nursing babies or pushing aside noisy toddlers.

In their greedy embrace of the government's back-to-school campaign after the prohibitive years under the Taliban, Afghanistan's women are as eager to get an education for themselves as for their children. Hundreds of women's literacy classes are forming in the back streets of this town in northern Afghanistan — faster than the government can register them — as women meet in neighborhood houses to learn to read and write.

"I wanted to know something and help my children," said Mahgul, 45, a widow and mother of six. "I have no knowledge, and so I am not a useful person. If I can get some knowledge, I can help my children more."

Zainab, 50, sitting next to her, said it was watching her own children read and write that made her want to learn, too. Her husband, sick with tuberculosis and also illiterate, urged her to come to the free lessons starting in the neighborhood. "He said, 'You are getting older, and you should know something and help your children so they do not grow up blind like you,' " she said.

"Blind" is the word many of these illiterate women use to describe themselves, and it speaks to the confusion and difficulties that they encounter as uneducated members of a society already harshly discriminatory against women.

"Without knowledge, I am blind; I do not know white from black," said Torpikay, 30. "In town, I do not know where is the hospital, or the baths or the washroom, and I will take my dishes into the wrong place, because we just follow other women and don't know where we are going." That last comment raised laughter from the entire class.

The women most often complain of not being able to decipher street signs, even for the bathroom, and not being able to understand medical prescriptions, says Mariya, one of the teachers who have started literacy classes for adult women in an impoverished neighborhood known as Ali Chupan, on the east side of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Silent, shadowy figures in public, Afghan women, dressed in the all-compassing burka, often are too timid to approach strangers to ask for directions.

One woman said she could not tell the difference between government money and the money widely used in the north, which looks almost the same but is worth half the value. "She was sometimes cheated because of that," Mariya said.

And the women, especially those without men in the family, say they are ill equipped to manage the daily difficulties of running the household and feeding their families.

In each of four classes visited in Ali Chupan, there were widows and young women fending for themselves, and they all said they wanted to become literate so they could find employment.

Three sisters, who live alone with their widowed mother, said they made a living weaving carpets, but could barely earn enough to survive. "I really want to learn and get work, maybe in an office," said Nasi, 20. Tears welled up as she described her life, how she had never been to school and how the family fled to the mountains when the Taliban came. But after only a few days of classes, she and her sister, Shaqila, 18, were rapidly writing down the alphabet.

Another reason the women often gave for attending classes is that they wanted to read letters from members of the family who because of the years of conflict, often live miles apart, or abroad as refugees.

Basira, 17, said her in-laws, who live with her, had urged her to come to classes because her father-in-law, the only one in the family who can read and write, was having trouble with his eyes.

"He suggested I learn to read so I could read the letters when they come," she said. "My mother-in-law becomes happy when I read something to them. She says, 'When we have a problem, you are the youngest of this house, and you will be able to solve the problem.' "

Some of the older women stare uncomprehendingly at the makeshift blackboards that teachers have arranged in their houses, one on the bare plastered wall, one on an old broken door.

But some women are fascinated and clearly hungry to learn. When they received new notebooks, they huddled in groups and helped each other write the letters.

"The best thing is being able to write my name," says Siddiqa, 18, who studied the Koran in her village but never went to school.

Some estimates have put women's illiteracy in Afghanistan as high as 85 percent, and the new government has begun a broad program not only to get all children back to school, but also to address the adult literacy problem by paying schoolteachers in the cities to instruct adults in their homes after school lets out.

Mazar-i-Sharif already has 172 registered adult literacy classes, and more are opening all the time as teachers hope to earn some extra pay, and women pile in to receive the free lessons. "We are happy about this, a lot of people want to come to the classes," said Palwasha Rafat of U.N.-Habitat, a United Nations aid organization that works with the Afghan government on education.

Governments that preceded the Taliban had organized women's literacy classes, but the surge of interest now after years of women's exclusion has surpassed anything before, she said. "People realized that the reason for all these years of war was the lack of education in the country," she said. "Both the men and the women realize this now and want to change that."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times CompanyPermissionsPrivacy Policy
September 22, 2002;Carlotta Gall;NYT;)

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