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Last Updated: Friday, 18 March, 2005, 12:48 GMT
Hiding to get an education
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

A group of frightened girls crept through the back alleys of Kabul, avoiding adults who might turn them in to the authorities.

Every time they heard a sound, they stopped and hid. They and their families would be in big trouble should they be caught

But the girls were not playing truant. It was not even a school day: such a thing no longer existed.

They were trying to get to lessons, lessons they had organised.

Bored at home

It was the late 1990s and the Islamic fundamentalist Taleban regime, in control of most of Afghanistan, had forbidden girls from formal education.

Confined to their houses, they grew bored and frustrated.
We never knew if we would be caught. Going to prison was a scary prospect
Marina Nawabi

Marina Nawabi's school career had been cut short when the Taleban took Kabul in 1996, so she and four friends decided to help themselves.

Avoiding the main street, they walked to their former teacher's house to ask for help.

Marina told the BBC News website: "When we went there, the teacher said she could do nothing. At first she was really afraid.

Map of Afghanistan

"We went a second and third time, until she changed her mind. She eventually agreed but told us to come at different times of day, so as not to create a pattern that people could discover."

The subterfuge was necessary because the group faced prison had they been discovered.

Marina's father, unlike many, supported her actions.

Her male relations - women were not allowed out on their own - stood watch outside lessons and made coded noise signals to warn the girls if anyone else was coming.

Disruptions

Marina said: "It was very worrying all the time. We never knew if we would be caught. Going to prison was a scary prospect.

"I had about one year and two months of my original school course left to complete when we started the secret lessons. But it took three years because of all the disruptions.

"If the teacher got scared we sometimes cancelled group meetings for weeks at a time.

"We had to hide whenever we heard a shout or someone else outside. Everyone just kept quiet.

"My mother was always saying I shouldn't do it, but I told her it was an opportunity I had to take.

"Being at home all the time was just so boring. I wanted to learn."

Having finished her English language course, Marina started teaching under cover.

Looking out

Girls living nearby joined her group under the same vow of secrecy.

Marina said: "When I was teaching, my mother used to look out of the window to check no-one was coming and my father would stand outside talking."

The Taleban authorities did not catch Marina and were themselves ousted from Kabul in 2001.

Changes to the constitution since then make education a right for all.

Marina, now 25, is studying for a degree at Kabul University's law and political sciences faculty.

She said: "Everything is going to the postive side and everything is changing for women. They have more access to education.

"But some people still believe women should not go outside the house.

"There is a saying that the only time women should leave the home is when they go to the grave.

"The Taleban still has power in some areas of Afghanistan. It is a big country and some parts have not changed much.

"However, lack of teachers is the main problem in Kabul and more schools need to be built."

Estimates for 1999 put Afghanistan's male literacy rate at 51%. For women the figure was 21%.

While studying, Marina has become a policy officer for the charity ActionAid, which promotes education and health.

She admits she finds the going at university difficult sometimes and has gaps in her knowledge, caused by her time outside formal learning.

"We are hopeful things will improve, even though we have a lot of problems, like low literacy levels.

"I still feel I lost out and we have to make sure nobody else has to miss their education."


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