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A Look at Afghanistan's Largest School for Girls

A few months ago, Afghanistan's interim government ordered the re-opening of schools for girls, reversing the former Taleban government's ban on public education for women. Like most schools in Afghanistan, the girls are undergoing final exams for the year.

It is exam week at the Zarghona all-Girls School in the center of Kandahar city. The younger girls are playing in the schoolyard before exams begin.

With an enrollment of 1,400 students and a staff of 32 teachers, the 55- year-old school is the largest girls school in the region, and one of the few that educates girls beyond the first few grades.

The classrooms fill up, and the teachers arrive. Most are wearing light shawls over their heads, having left their blue burqa's hanging on pegs in the faculty room.

Many of the classrooms do not have desks or chairs, so the students sit on the floor. There is also a shortage of notebooks and paper, so one-by-one, the students come to the teacher for an oral exam.

In one room, Aminah Shakhal is testing a second grade pupil on the Koran. The student reads a passage from the sacred Arabic text with little prompting from her teacher.

Ms. Shakhal said despite the fact that the girls only started school four-months ago, they are doing well. "They are very good and they pick up the lessons easily," she said.

Hafifa Maaruf is giving a math exam to her first grade pupils. Under the Taleban, she secretly taught 20 to 30 girls in her home. Although the Taleban punished women found doing this, Ms. Maaruf said she felt it was her duty.

"I was frightened, but I was not too frightened because what I was doing was not wrong. It was not a crime and for that reason I was not afraid a lot," she said.

Ms. Maaruf said when Zaraghona school opened in January she had tears of joy in her eyes. But she said there are many frustrations.

The school has few supplies, and as a result the teachers often pay for things like chalk and pencils out of their own pockets. She appeals for more support from the government and the international community.

The highest grade at Zarghona Girls School this year is the sixth grade.

In this class, students are preparing for their science exam. Thirteen-year-old Aisha said that during the Taleban era she had to study at home with her parents, so she was glad when the school opened.

"It is better because here there are a lot of teachers for us. For every subject there is a teacher. At home, I was around my parents," she said.

Aisha said she wants to be an engineer and plans to go on to college in Kandahar or Kabul.

The principal of Zaraghona Girls School, Atta Mohammed Shakhal, has taught here for 25 years. Under the Taleban, Zaraghona School was turned into a boys school. But Mr. Shakhal said after the fall of the Taleban, it was quickly turned back into a girls school again.

"After the schools were opened for girls, we made an announcement on local radio of Kandahar and the next day a lot of girls with their parents, either mother or father, they were coming here, very excited, and all of them wanted to register their daughters in school," he said.

Mr. Shakhal said the school plans to add seventh grade next year, eighth grade the following year, and so on until it has re-established all 12-grades.

He acknowledges that some conservative families in Kandahar still prefer to educate their daughters at home. He does not oppose this, saying it is in keeping with the community's traditions. But he said, God forbid that a government in Afghanistan ever again restricts the education of its women.

Mr. Shakhal said Afghanistan needs educated women, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, not only to educate other young women, but also to contribute to the development of society at large.