Illegally teaching girls in Afghanistan

NEW YORK, Dec. 22 (JTA) — A Jewish American group is helping to fund illegal activity in Afghanistan: the education of young girls.

The American Jewish World Service, a nonsectarian organization that supports grass-roots efforts in the developing world, is one of the groups that recently contributed money to the education of 1,000 “secret” female students in Afghanistan.

“For us as a Jewish group, we put a high value on education,” said Ruth Messinger, the organization’s president.

The Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic regime that has ruled Afghanistan since 1996, outlawed education for females soon after it took power.

A human rights organization, which wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons, started the “Home Schools for Girls in Afghanistan” project. The project provides textbooks, and employs teachers for young girls at secret underground schools.

“If the Taliban found out the name of the organization in charge of this project, its director might get killed,” said Katie Bell of the Global Fund for Children, another group contributing to the project.

Not only did the Taliban outlaw female education, but it banned Afghan women from working. As a result, the females who teach in these underground schools — who lost their original teaching jobs and income when their work was made illegal — place themselves at great personal risk, perhaps even death.

“The women who have organized these schools are heroes,” said Messinger.

The number of underground schools is growing: Currently, there are about 30 of them located in the cities of Herat, Kabul and Jalalabad.

The women teach in their private homes, and assign the girls different times to enter and leave, so as not to draw attention. For $300 a month, they teach a basic curriculum for students up to the sixth grade.

“Everything is done to make it not appear like a school,” Messinger said.

Before the women are selected to teach by the project director, who pays the women’s salaries with funds collected from the AJWS and others, they discuss the possibility of teaching with their husbands and extended families. If a family decides that the women should teach, word is spread throughout their neighborhood to solicit pupils.

“I don’t know how they keep it secret with so many people knowing,” Bell said. “They’re very creative.”

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