March Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

It was a regular morning for the young girls who trooped into the school building in Dara Adamkhel. The unsuspecting students froze in their tracks, however, on spotting a sinister warning affixed to the notice board of Mohammed Hussain Maila Girls’ High School. “We have decided to bomb the school building. If any student shows up and is killed as a result, she will be responsible for her own death..” Not surprisingly, panic soon spread and most students returned to the safety of their homes within the next few hours.

The panic was well justified. In the past few months, religious extremists have started bombing girls schools in the tribal region of Dara Adamkhel in the Frontier province. The militants justify the attacks on the pretext that “these schools aim to westernise the local population.” Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s antipathy towards the education of girls is well documented: in the past 18 months, at least 61 teachers have been murdered and 183 schools razed to the ground. And in an alarming new trend, hard-line Islamists in the NWFP have now launched their own campaign against female education.

Later that evening, after the students of Hussain Maila Girls’ High School discovered the threatening sign, militants delivered threatening pamphlets to individual homes. Notices were then served to the van drivers, warning them of dire consequences if they did not refrain from transporting female students to school. Fearing vicious retribution if they did not comply, within the next few days, many parents pulled their daughters out of school. In the Hussain Maila School alone, 255 of the 506 students enrolled have dropped out.

“We are really petrified,” says Baaz Khan, a local tribesman, who pulled out his 11-year-old daughter from school. “My fellow tribesmen and myself hate the thought of denying education to our daughters who face the challenges of a modern world ahead of them. But the thought of carrying their dead bodies home from school is equally unnerving.” Munawar Khan, another local, says that at least 50 to 60 % of female students have dropped out of over a dozen girls’ schools in the area. Meanwhile, some private schools are even thinking of closing their doors permanently.

Traditionally, the dusty town of Dara Adamkhel, 42 miles south of Peshawar, has not been known as a hotbed of Islamic militancy. It is, however, famous for the manufacture of weapons, which are supplied for use in almost every conflict around the world. Of the local population of about 80,000, nearly 20,000 people earn their living from the weapons trade.

“Weapons manufactured in Dara have not only been used in Afghanistan, and Kashmir, but were also smuggled to Bosnia. They continue to be sent to Muslim militants fighting in the Philippines and Indonesia as well,” says Lateef Khan Afridi, former National Assembly member.

However, while the locals may have been manufacturing weapons for the use of Islamist groups, they have not felt compelled to impose Taliban-style restrictions upon their womenfolk. In fact, the presence of several girls’ school and a few colleges in the area testify to the fact that the locals are generally tolerant towards female education. “The majority of the people in these areas want their daughters to acquire an education, and if they are unable to do so, it is for logistical or financial reasons,” says a Peshawar-based activist. “In fact, it is not unusual for girls to be sent to Peshawar or other parts of the country for higher education.”

But an insidious change is now creeping in. The walls in Dara and its environs are defaced with slogans such as, “Rise! Rise, you who yearn for heaven,” while another reads, “Martyrdom is a shortcut to heaven!” Locals feel that the extremist influence is filtering in from North and South Waziristan, the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, where most girls’ schools, including 180 community schools that were set up with Norwegian assistance, have been shut down.

The new wave of “Islamisation” was first felt when the militants warned barbers against shaving their clients’ beards. Then some video shops, dealing in Hollywood and Bollywood movies, were bombed. In the next phase, girls schools were targeted. In November last year, two extremists intended to bomb Sheraki Girls High School. Luckily, the bomb exploded before it could be planted, killing both the terrorists. Soon after, the boundary wall of the under-construction Girls’ Degree College was damaged in another attack. Three other school buildings in Pirwal, Sunikhel and in Haji Noor Ali Kili were attacked. At least eight locals were injured when a bomb went off in the parking lot of Al-Noor Public School. The school was hosting a three-day work shop on health awareness with the help of Response International — a UK-based NGO.

Meanwhile, even as girls schools are being systematically targeted for destruction, young male students are being conscripted by the militants and sent to Afghanistan and the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan where they are trained in the use of explosives. “These local Taliban have been going to schools where they show videos and give lectures about armed jihad,” an area resident revealed. “In the past few months, dozens of young boys have been taken to the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.”

Another local revealed that his 14-year-old son was taken for training to Wana. He said that he managed to locate him, but was shocked to know that the boy did not want to return home. “He was determined to wage jihad. I finally managed to bring him back, but with great difficulty. “

In the last few weeks, militants have also started asking the people of Dara to disassociate themselves from foreign organisations such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, UN and its sister organisations, such as the Red Cross, ILO and others. A religious decree issued by one Mufti Khalid Shah and distributed among the people earlier this month reads, “All these NGOs are working on the agenda of the Zionists; it is the duty of every Muslim to destroy their offices, attack their vehicles and to kill their members. It is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction against these infidels, without the use of which the emancipation of the Muslims is unlikely.”

While the average Pashtun tribesman may not subscribe to such an extremist viewpoint, the locals are too scared to openly challenge them. The militants appear to be highly organised and resourceful and residents do not have the means to fight them. “We have got squads of fidayeen (suicide bombers) and if any one tries to harm any of our members, these fidayeens would attack them from right, left and center,” reads a recent letter to the local population.

In the face of their inability to deal with the militants, the local administration in Dara Adamkhel has instead directed female teachers and girl students of government schools to wear “a traditional white burqa” on their way to and from schools as opposed to the “fashionable black burqa.” This order was issued by the Kohat Tehsildar, Abdul Ghafoor, during a meeting held to assess the security situation in the area. “This disturbing response of the political administration reveals their complete helplessness. They are asking students as young as eight years old to cover up in a burqa,” says Imran Khan, a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Several dozen teachers have already sent letters to the Dara Adamkhel administration, expressing their inability to work in the circumstances. Analysts fear that if unchecked, the situation in Dara could trigger a widespread movement across the province. In fact, the targeting of girls schools in other parts of the NWFP has already begun. Recently, pamphlets were circulated in Bajaur warning against female education. Boys were also ordered to wear shalwar kameezes to school as opposed to trousers. Similarly, threats have been issued to girl students in Mardan.

Meanwhile, in Peshawar five private English medium co-educational institutions were shut down following threats of a suicide attack. The five institutions — the City School, Peshawar Grammar School, Frontier Education Foundation, four branches of the Beacon House School in various parts of the city and a branch of Bloomfield School in University Town — were closed by their respective administrations after receiving instructions from security agencies that terrorists might target them.

Most analysts are baffled by the lukewarm response of the administration to the rapidly escalating situation. “It is next to impossible for those who are involved in such activities to keep their identities hidden. But we cannot understand why the officials are not laying their hands on them,” says a local.

Some observers lay the blame on the coalition of religious parties running NWFP’s provincial government, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). For its part, the MMA has consistently stated it does not oppose education for girls and is, in fact, eager to encourage it. Others point a finger at the federal government for allowing the ‘Talibanisation’ of these areas to take place unchecked. According to these analysts, the new political order issued by the Musharraf government does not allow mainstream secular political parties to operate in the tribal areas. Religious parties hold sway here and the local maulvis continue to preach lessons of intolerance at every Friday congregation.” As Lateef Afridi points out, “How can one expect to bring the people of these areas into the mainstream when the religious clergy are allowed to operate freely, but secular political parties cannot do so under the constitution of the country?”

“Hardly 1% of the women in the frontier region are educated,” continues Afridi. “If the present situation prevails, and those who have crossed cultural barriers are once again forced to keep their daughters unlettered, the future will most certainly be bleak.”