Pakistani girls' schools in radicals' sights

Peshawar, Pakistan - All throughout the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Pakistan's impoverished western border with Afghanistan, lie the ruins of barbershops and music and video stores – symbols of Western-oriented life that religious extremists have destroyed in a growing wave of violence.

Now Islamist militants have a new target, and if they are successful, observers say their campaign could be disastrous for Pakistan's future.

In what appears to be an escalating spree over the last year, extremists have bombed at least four girls' schools and circulated violent threats warning girls to stay at home. While no girls or school staff have been killed, girls in some areas have stopped attending classes – marking a direct blow to Pakistan's national enterprise of "enlightened moderation," which posits female education as a central pillar.

Pakistan finds itself at a precarious tipping point: Tremendous gains have been made in female education in recent years, but a considerable gender gap remains. Extremists' efforts to undermine education for women, who are historically one of Pakistan's most potent forces of moderation, could further empower Pakistan's growing ranks of Islamist militants.

"Because girls are the ones suffering from these oppressive ideas, if they are educated they will be a better ally in the promotion of liberal ideas and secularism," says Farzana Bari, who heads the gender studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

The continuing wave of attacks could tilt Pakistan's sensitive political balance, observers say, and hurt crucial economic development efforts. As female education improves, infant mortality rates tend to decrease, family health improves, national incomes rise, and female citizens become more politically active and aware of their rights, say development experts.

"You'll be keeping half the population of Pakistan idle [if the bombings continue]," says Syed Fayyaz Ahmad, the joint education adviser of the Ministry of Education in Islamabad. "[Girls] would not add to the economic development of NWFP. If your female children are not educated, your next generation of boys and girls are affected."

Entrenched tribal, religious, and economic imperatives in conservative areas regard the schooling of girls as either improper, since girls should not venture outside the purview of the family home, or unnecessary, since girls are often needed for work.

As a result, Pakistan has one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in South Asia, at about 60 percent, and the lowest rate of primary school enrollment for girls, at somewhere between 42 and 48 percent. Those shortcomings are particularly pronounced in the NWFP, which, as of 2004, had the lowest ratio of female enrollment of any province in Pakistan, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). In areas like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the government's presence has historically been weakest, only 1 percent of women and girls are literate.

The issue has become even more of a battleground in recent years, as resurgent Islamic extremism bumps heads with the government's recent efforts to expand girls' education. In 2002, the NWFP provincial government allocated 70 percent of its entire education development budget to girls' schools and created more than 300 primary and middle schools for girls in the NWFP between 2002 and 2005, according to government figures. Local authorities also gave parents small stipends and free clothing to encourage them to enroll their girls.

It is these new schools that extremists like Maulana Fazlullah, a powerful preacher in Swat valley, tend to target. For months, using a pirated radio channel, Mr. Fazlullah had warned locals against sending their girls to school, calling it un-Islamic and a violation of purdah, the religiously mandated confinement of women away from public scrutiny.

"A woman has been asked to remain behind the four walls of the house. Men have been given preference by God," Fazlullah explains in an interview on the banks of the Swat River, where he is building a madrassah, or religious school. In a recent peace treaty signed with the government, Fazlullah agreed to stop preaching against girls' education in return for keeping his illegal radio station.

Others have delivered the same message through force. In March, police in Orakzai agency, part of FATA, defused a bomb planted on the grounds of a girls' school, and other schools in the NWFP, including the provincial capital of Peshawar, have received written threats saying girls and female teachers should wear full veils or face dire consequences. Many worry that the violence is spreading.

'"Everywhere these girls are going, the teachers are threatened," says Fazilla Gulrez, the manager of communications for the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) in Islamabad.

There could be little to stop it. Ms. Gulrez adds that the voices of extremists, particularly when conveyed through bombs, are often much stronger than those of concerned parents or civil society. "The parents are poor. They don't have a voice. The situation is so volatile, but civil society cannot take a stand."

Officials have publicly condemned the attacks, and say privately that a citizen-led countercampaign should be mustered.

"If you want to break a tradition, naturally there will be a backlash," says Mr. Ahmad. "When you create an awareness program, the chances of success are 50/50. For NWFP, even if it's 50 percent, that's a good start."

Indeed, if Fazlullah and others are against female education, it is probably because girls are pouring into schools. In Swat valley alone, primary school enrollment for girls has increased by nearly 31,000 since 2002, or 77 percent.

And even though Fazlullah started preaching two years ago, girls' enrollment in Swat last year grew by more than 12,000, according to government statistics. As a result, female illiteracy has gone down by 9 percentage points in less than a decade. And national statistics suggest that female enrollment at the primary level has climbed by 12 percentage points between 1998 and 2005, according to the World Bank.

"We have no problem," says Ghulam Akbar, the executive district officer of education in Swat. "The girls are still going. Very [few] have stopped."