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The Price of Going to Class

In Afghanistan, A resurgent Taliban is doing everything it can to keep girls out of school. But some refuse to give in.

By Dexter Filkins in Kandahar, Afghanistan

Click for graphic
One morning last November, 17-year-old Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, to the local girls school. A man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question: "Are you going to school?"

Then the man sprayed Shamsia's face with what appeared to be battery acid. Now, four months later, jagged and discolored scars are spread across Shamsia's eyelids and left cheek. Her vision often blurs, making it hard for her to read.

But if the acid attack against Shamsia and 14 other women and girls, both students and teachers, was meant to terrorize them into staying home, it seems to have failed.

Today, nearly all of the wounded girls are back at the Mirwais School for Girls, including Shamsia, whose face was so badly burned that she had to be sent abroad for treatment. And nearly every other female student in this deeply conservative community has returned as well—about 1,300 in all.

"My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed," says Shamsia. Her mother, like nearly all the women in the area, is unable to read or write. "The people who did this to me don't want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things."

In Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, more than 80 percent of the women are illiterate. Their life expectancy is only 43 years (compared with 81 years for women in the U.S.), mostly because of the high rates of death during pregnancy. Forced and underage marriage are common for girls.

Taliban Repression

Things were even worse for women (and men) under the Taliban, the radical Islamic group that controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Girls were forbidden to attend school, women could not work outside the home, and they were required to wear burkas—head-to-toe garments—to keep them covered up.

The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, following a civil war that erupted after 10 years of occupation by the Soviet Union. During the Taliban's brutal five-year reign, they imposed their fundamentalist version of Islam on the nation. In addition to their subjugation of women, they banned TV, movies, and music. The Taliban also let Osama bin Laden, who is from Saudi Arabia, set up terrorist training camps for Al Qaeda in the mountains along the border with Pakistan. From there, he planned the 9/11 attacks.

In retaliation for those attacks, the U.S. launched air strikes against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in October 2001. Within a month, a ground campaign had toppled the Taliban regime, although remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban hid on both sides of the 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, where many remain today.

In 2004, Hamid Karzai won Afghanistan's first democratic presidential election. Building new schools and ensuring that children—especially girls—attend has been a key objective of Karzai's government, along with the U.S. and other nations that have contributed to Afghanistan's reconstruction.

But as the U.S. turned its attention to the war in Iraq, which began in March 2003, the Taliban began to regroup. In 2006, hundreds of Taliban swarmed into southern Afghanistan, where they set up checkpoints and assassinated officials. They made schools one of their special targets. Since then, the mounting toll inflicted by the insurgents has turned Afghanistan into a deadlier battleground than Iraq, and the Taliban are back in control of much of the countryside.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would redeploy thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, which he sees as the front line in the war against terrorism. He is now preparing to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan over the next two years from about 34,000 to around 60,000.

In the five years since the Mirwais School for Girls was built by the Japanese government, it appears to have set off something of a social revolution in the area. Even as the Taliban tighten their noose around Kandahar, the girls flock to school each morning. Some are in their late teens and early 20s, attending school for the first time.

In the months before the acid attacks, the Taliban had moved into the area near the school. As they did, posters began appearing in local mosques. "Don't Let Your Daughters Go to School," one of them said.

On November 12, three pairs of men on motorcycles began circling the school. One of the teams used a spray bottle, another a squirt gun, another a jar, to douse the women with the burning acid. They hit 11 girls and 4 teachers, with Shamsia faring the worst. The police have arrested 10 Taliban militants they say were paid $1,275 for each woman they managed to burn.

Full Classrooms

In the days after the attacks, none of the parents would let their daughters venture outside. Finally, the headmaster, Mahmood Qadari, called a parents' meeting.

"I told them, if you don't send your daughters to school, then the enemy wins," Qadari says. "I told them not to give in to darkness. Education is the way to improve our society."

Now, most of the girls have returned and the Mirwais School brims with life. Inside the walled compound, the girls fling off burkas, laugh, and run around in ways that are inconceivable outside—for girls and women of any age. The school's 40 classrooms are so full that classes are also held in four tents donated by UNICEF.

Doctors have told Shamsia that her face may need plastic surgery if there is to be any chance of the scars disappearing. It is a distant dream: Shamsia's village does not even have regular electricity, and her father is disabled.

After class, Shamsia blends in with the other girls, laughing and joking. She doesn't seem self-conscious about her disfigurement, until she begins to recount her ordeal.

"The people who did this," she says, "do not feel the pain of others."