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Pakistan: Extremists Target Schoolgirls In North


Pakistan: Extremists target schoolgirls in north

In some parts of Mansehra District in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the familiar early morning scenes of children going to school have changed. Rather than regular school uniforms, often topped with a white 'dopatta' (head scarf) or shawl traditionally worn by schoolgirls, more and more of all but the youngest girls are donning the head-to-toe 'burqa', or full-length veil.

"This is part of the 'Talibanisation' taking place across the NWFP," said Uzma Hammad, 30, a teacher and social activist in Mansehra District. "We are all terrorised by it," she said, adding that it was "vital that people, especially women" fought back against the new wave of fundamentalism sweeping the region.

Mansehra District, about 125km northeast of Peshawar, has a literacy rate of over 36 percent, among the highest in NWFP. According to official figures, in the district capital, Mansehra town, 60 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls are enrolled in schools.

One of the most recent signs of the scale and shape of the threat can be seen in the town of Oghi, about an hour's drive west of Mansehra.

Here, almost all the girls attending the Higher Secondary Girls School, the only school beyond primary level for girls in the town, now don the 'burqa'. A few weeks ago, only a handful wore the garment.

"Threatening letter"

"We received a threatening letter, and asked the students and their parents to cooperate and wear the 'burqa' for the safety of the 800 pupils at the school," Aftab Bibi, the vice-principal of the school, told IRIN.

The unsigned letter, which the school authorities said had been handed over to police, warned the school could face "serious consequences" if the 'burqa' was not made "compulsory" for pupils.

So far, police and the local authorities have not taken any action. It is not known who sent the letter, but it is believed one of the small, extremist organisations, which have been multiplying rapidly across the NWFP, is responsible. "This is what happens when the authorities fail to act against militant elements," said I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Various attacks, threats

He pointed out that over the past two years there had been various threats against female non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, and the issuing of 'fatwas' (edicts) against NGOs - but "nothing was done against those responsible".

Instances of 'Talibanisation' have been reported from across the NWFP, and include attacks on music shops, on barbers who shave customers' beards (on the basis that all men must grow beards), and on video shops.

In some instances, mannequins were removed from clothing stores in Peshawar after extremist groups argued they were "obscene", according to local residents.

Prime target

However, girls' schools have been a particular target. Amidst fears of bombings in February this year, at least five private schools, including three in Peshawar, temporarily closed down after receiving letters warning teachers and pupils to wear 'burqas'.

The recent bombing of a girls' school in the town of Kabal in the troubled neighbouring Swat Valley led to plummeting attendance in the area, while attempts to bomb schools have also taken place in Orakzai Agency and the Waziristan Agency.

Recently, the Europe-based Senlis Council reported that half of Afghanistan, which borders on the NWFP, was back under Taliban control.

Taliban influence is spreading across the border into the NWFP, according to theinternational policy think tank group, and while a tiny minority of girls at Oghi girls school have resisted efforts to force them into 'burqas', it is unknown how long they will be able to hold out against the rising tide of fundamentalism.

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