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Women in Kandahar - and fear

In the front yard of the Zarghona Anna Girls’ High School, is a burned out minibus that was torched when a mob of men attacked the school a few weeks ago.

In the front yard of the Zarghona Anna Girls' High School, is a burned out minibus that was torched when a mob of men attacked the school a few weeks ago.

But today the girls, in black tunics, loose slacks and white scarves, chatter happily in front of the low, white school, built around a courtyard. It was built decades ago under the Afghan monarchy, and continued ever since - with a break during the Taliban. Now its headmistress wonders whether its mission can go on.

The violent incident happened when riots broke out after rumors that a Koran burning was occurring in the United States. The headmistress of the school, Lailoma Popal, a handsome woman who wears a mustard and white shalwar khameez with matching headscarf, points out that among the schoolbooks that were burned by the rioters in the incident were Korans.

But the uncertainty of the future here for women who want to work and study weighs on her – as Afghans wonder whether American troops will leave soon. Educated women, a small minority in Kandahar, face  a conservative culture that produced Taliban (the rioters were angry males who see girls' schools as morally corrupt, but not necessarily  Taliban members). They also fear that any return of the Taliban would plunge the country back into civil war.

When the rioters came, the teachers rushed the girls – in their black tunics, loose pants and white headscarves – into the back of the large building. They hid as many as possible in lavatories. The rioters smashed windows, piled up classroom chairs, and set rooms alight. The teachers tried to prevent the girls from screaming as the smoke filled the air.

The police in a substation right next to the school fled, reflecting their lack of capacity. Security officers in another building nearby, housing an office of the national intelligence agency, did nothing.  The situation was only saved when many fathers of students arrived and begged the rioters to let the girls leave safely.

Popal, a university graduate who fled to Pakistan during Taliban rule, says only a small minority of girls go to high school in Kandahar, the children of educated parents or poor parents who understand the value of education.  "Until we have good local police," she says, "the international community can't leave." Then she adds: "we see police smoking hash all the time, they are all criminals and thieves. If the international community leaves, we will have a bloodier situation than now."