Back to School for Afghan Turkmen?

The first-ever ethnic Turkmen education minister takes steps to get his people to go to school.

Back to School for Afghan Turkmen?

The first-ever ethnic Turkmen education minister takes steps to get his people to go to school.

Shaziya was recently forced to leave the village in northeast Afghanistan where she was born and grew up.

The 40-year-old primary school teacher fled Ghorghan Tepe in Faryab province in fear of her own life and those of her two children, after the schoolhouse which also served as her home was set on fire one night.

Luckily, neither she nor her children were in the building at the time. But the arson attack meant Shaziya had to find a new home and look for another source of income.

As she had already lost her husband in one of Afghanistan’s many wars, her last hope was her uncle. But he was afraid of sheltering her because of pressure from the local community.

What scared him was Shaziya’s connection with a local non-government organisation, NGO, called Negahban (the Guardian), which seeks to promote awareness of education among rural populations.

“Activists with NGOs are seen as being like Western agents,” said Halim Asefi, the head of Negahban. “Whatever you do, you’ll never satisfy people. They’ll see you as an enemy installed by the West to destroy community values.

“So it's very hard to find activists, especially female ones like Shaziya.”

Shaziya has since found temporary with Asefi’s family.

Asefi says the kind of community suspicion and pressure that Shaziya was subjected to is by no means specific to the ethnic Turkmen of Afghanistan, who number about two to three million and live in the north and northwest of the country.

But what he finds so disappointing is the unusually strong resistance to social change he observes among the Turkmen – his own people. He warns that this could hamper their progress in the new Afghanistan.

Asefi was inspired to set up Negahban after seeing a rural women's initiative in Turkey while he was at university there. After graduating, he decided to return home - now that the Taleban regime had fallen in late 2001 - and began putting his idea into practice, with the help of funding from international donor agencies.

Founding his NGO was hard enough, but keeping it going was even harder, as the entire tribal system in his community seemed to be against his aims. Tackling any issue to do with the family - particularly education for girls - was taboo in a society, which sees such matters as essentially private.

Unusually in Afghanistan, there is even resistance to the idea that boys should attend school.

“My father is an uneducated man,” said Asefi. “But it's not because he had no opportunity to study. At that time, there were two schools built by the central government, but no one was interested in sending their kids.

“When the authorities spotted this, they made basic education compulsory. But instead of leading to progress, the move opened new paths for corruption in the village: people who didn’t want to send their children to school started to bribe the teachers. And anyway, the project didn’t last long, as schoolteachers were the first to be targeted by the mujahedin when they reached our town [in the early Nineties].”

Negahban is not the only group facing problems in Turkmen areas. Local media recently reported that a women was abducted shortly after starting work as a teacher for another NGO.

Jamahir Anwari, who leads the Turkmen Peace Council, which represents the large refugee population in Pakistan as well as those in northern Afghanistan, believes the high levels of suspicion of innovation and outsiders stems from conservative Islamic values that have been “imposed” on the Turkmen by other Afghan groups over the years.

In principle, he says, Turkmen are not against education – everyone knows the basics of reading and writing, if not from normal schooling then from attending a madrassa or religious school.

But as Nadir Turkmen, a young journalist based in Kabul, points out, the level of education offered by madrassas has not provided the skills needed to help aspiring Turkmen leaders navigate their way through the decades of conflict.

“Because of the lack of intellectuals, the Turkmen were always ignored and were ruled by others in Afghanistan,” he said. “There was no one able to talk about the rights of the Turkmen people, so they were never represented properly in the overall [governing] structures.”

The bulk of Afghanistan’s Turkmen population dates from the 1920s, when the many people fled their homeland in Central Asia as the Soviets invaded and took over the territory that is now the republic of Turkmenistan.

As they remained somewhat apart from the social and political mainstream of Afghanistan, they found themselves excluded from decision-making. This lack of engagement extended to the decades of conflict, in which the Turkmen mainly sought to remain neutral, and as a result they now have no former warlords at the table exerting political leverage.

Spread across the northern provinces of Faryab, Jowzjan, Balkh and Kunduz, the Afghan Turkmen are famous for their handmade carpets - often deep red in colour - which for decades have provided their main source of income alongside farming. When a boy went out to work on the farm at the age of 12, his sister would be expected to look after her younger brothers and sisters while her mother wove rugs from dawn to dusk.

There may now be a golden opportunity to address the issues facing the Turkmen, since one of their own, Nur Muhammad Qarqin, was appointed Afghan education minister in last cabinet.

Qarqin seems keen to bring change to the way Turkmen view education and aspiration.

He recently announced a project to provide school textbooks in the Turkmen language for the first time. Turkmen generally study in Dari, which serves as lingua franca for many Afghan minorities.

The challenges are immense - so far the minister has not been able to find anyone sufficiently expert in the language to devise the teaching material. But many people believe the project could be just the right thing to change attitudes to education - which in turn could help this community gain more of a voice in Afghanistan.

Muhammad Tahir is a journalist and broadcaster based in Prague.

Support our journalists