Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Herat Women Thirst for Education

Women in this western city are flocking to literacy classes, which are transforming their lives.
Fatima, mother of five, sits in the tent, sweating in the heat. She is not alone: there are 40 other women with her, all of them busy with the alphabet.

“I really want to learn to read and write,” she told IWPR.

Fatima lives in Dadshan village, in a district of Herat Province that is remote from the splendours of the capital city. Enrolling in the literacy course was not easy: in addition to coping with the demands of her large family, she had to convince her husband, a farmer for whom literacy, especially for women, seemed a luxury.

But Fatima persisted, and the joy of her accomplishment shows in her face as she carefully traces her letters.

“I want to become a teacher in my village so I can help other women,” she said. “Besides, I can help my husband by bringing in some money.”

Education officials in Herat say that close to 80 per cent of their literacy students are women. It is the first province in Afghanistan to show such a sharp jump in female education.

“Families here are more open, and the security is relatively good,” said Muhammad Omar Ghafoori, head of the literacy unit of Herat’s Education Department. “We also have a large migration from Iran, which neighbours Herat and has a similar culture.”

Herat is something of an anomaly in Afghanistan today. Its gracious, tree-lined streets, the famed 15th-century minarets, and the spectacular Jamiea Mosque are in stark contrast to Kabul’s dusty, barren roads and ruined buildings. A centre of culture and learning for centuries, it is a fitting place to launch a literacy movement.

According to Ghafoori, more than 50,000 women have participated in literacy courses over the past three years, compared to just over 15,000 men. Herat has 6,000 literacy centres scattered throughout its towns and villages, and the effort has pulled in more than 5500 teachers.

“We have mullahs, religious scholars, high school graduates, community leaders – all volunteering as teachers,” he said.

Nooria, a resident of Gulran district, is also learning to read and write. For her it is a matter of women’s rights.

“When the women are able to write and read, they will be able to know and defend their rights,” she said. “When we were living in Iran, as refugees, we learned a different kind of family and social life.”

Sima Sher Muhammadi, head of the Department of Women’s Affairs in Herat, is convinced that it was her office’s hard work that has made the difference.

“We have held more than 100 workshops in women’s rights, literacy, and criminal law,” she said. “We have encouraged women to get educated. In addition, we have had very good cooperation with the Ulema (religious councils).”

The women’s department distributed foodstuffs such as beans, oil, and sugar to poor woman who have enrolled in the literacy programme, which has also boosted attendance, she said.

But the literacy campaign has had even greater benefits for Herat’s women, she added.

“Overall we have had a 60 per cent decrease in the rate of self-immolation, which was the highest in the country two years ago,” she said. “Also, the number of forced marriages has decreased. This is the result of our workshops, and of women becoming literate.”

Dr Barakatullah Mohammadi, who heads the Emergency Regional Hospital of Herat Province, confirmed that there has been a precipitous decline in cases of women burning themselves.

“So far this year we have only had 13 cases of self-immolation,” he told IWPR. “This is a 90 per cent decrease over last year. The reason is literacy, and the information campaigns launched by the hospital, NGOs, the mullahs, and the women’s affairs department.”

Men are lagging far behind their wives, sisters, and daughters when it comes to learning to read and write.

“Men have to make a living for their families,” said Ghafoori. “Their economic problems make them less interested in literacy.”

Social scientist Ajmal Yazdani agreed that the need to earn money was the main reason men were less inclined to enroll in literacy courses. But male ego also plays a role, he added.

“When men are older they are not willing to sit in a chair and learn the alphabet like a child,” he said. “But women’s literacy is part of the culture in Herat. There is relative security in the province, which helps. But the main reason is that five-year period under the Taleban when women were not allowed to leave their homes. Now they are getting their revenge for that time.”

Sources at the Herat education department have said that 50 per cent of the more than 600,000 children at school are girls. This is in sharp contrast to some other parts of the country, such as the south, where girls make up no more than ten per cent of students.

But problems remain. Many families are still unwilling to let their wives and daughters out to go to school, and women have few resources with which to resist.

Gulsum, a resident of Rawashan village, is a housewife. She wants to learn to read and write, and she told IWPR that many of her neighbours have participated in literacy courses. Her husband, however, is not willing for her to leave the house to go to school.

“When I ask him for permission to go to school he beats me,” she said. “But I don’t care how many times he beats me, I will keep asking. One day he will say yes.”

Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali are freelance journalists in Herat.

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