Thousands of young women living in a part of Pakistan once considered the country’s most idyllic tourist destination have been prevented from going to school after an order from Taliban forces which have seized control of much of the area.
Fearful of violent attacks that have already seen the torching of over 180 schools in the Swat Valley, school administrators have announced that more than 900 private schools will remain closed until the security situation improves. Government officials, struggling to organise adequate protection, have appealed to schools to extend their winter holidays until at least March. The future education of around 125,000 young women is uncertain as a result of the order, said to come into effect on January 15.
In an echo of Afghanistan under the Taliban, the campaign against female education is the latest phase of a brutal and swift advance across the valley led by local Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah that has included the beheading of opponents, the closure of barber shops, political assassinations, kidnappings and the destruction of homes belonging to the wealthy.
Earlier this month, militants were believed to be behind attacks on the homes of the Wali of Swat, the benign autocrat who ruled the valley and who has now fled to Islamabad, and Hameedullah Khan, a reporter for the respected Dawn newspaper.
The Taliban have also introduced a parallel legal system where makeshift Sharia courts order lashes and death sentences for those seen to be violating their brand of Islamic law, said Shoukat Saleem, a lawyer.
“Yesterday there was a bombing of a school in Mingora, the main city,” he added. “No one is giving any education. Girls preparing for their matriculation exams in March have had to abandon their education. Unless the government or the Taliban announce that the situation will be ok, no one will take the risk.”
Shoukat Ali Yousafzai, the top civil administrator, said most of the schools were currently closed for winter holidays. “Once they are over, we will give security with the help of the army,” he said.
But in a sign of worsening security in even Mingora, which until recently been beyond the reach of the Taliban, Mr Yousafzai said around 50 corpses had been discovered dumped this month. Some have been found beheaded, others carried a note warning readers not to remove the body before an appointed time.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, a spokesman for the Private Schools Management Association, said: “It will be very difficult to reopen the schools as long as there is no political solution of the problem? The Taliban are now the de facto rulers of Swat.”…
Additional reporting from Reuters and the Associated Press adds this:
Muslim Khan, the militants’ spokesman, said they would not allow girls’ schools to operate until the army withdraws from the valley and Islamic law is imposed. “These schools are being run under a system introduced by the British and promote obscenity and vulgarity in society,” Khan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.