Iain Guest

Iain founded AP in 2001 after many years of writing about and working with civil society in countries in conflict. He was a Geneva-based correspondent for the London-based Guardian and International Herald Tribune (1976-1987); authored a book on the disappearances in Argentina; fronted several BBC documentaries; served as spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia (1992) and the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti (2004); served as a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace (1996-7); and conducted missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for the UN, USAID and UNHCR. Iain recently stepped down as an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he taught human rights.

The Women Teachers of Fatima Zahra

16 Oct

Jalalabad, October 16: The school of Fatima Zahra is named after one of the Prophet Mohamed’s three daughters. Appropriately enough, the school compound – a former agricultural center – feels like a sanctum for women and girls. This is mainly because almost all of its teachers are women. They move through the classrooms, chatting with their pupils, and sit down to talk with me. It is all very relaxed, and something of a relief. I’ve become used to Afghan women ducking out of sight or drawing a veil over their face when I approach.

Educated bride: The fiance of Basree (center) had to agree that she could remain in school, in order to win her hand.

The question is whether it will last. Earlier this year, in June, one of the school’s donors, the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), was forced to pull out from Fatima Zahra because of a funding shortfall. This left all of the women teachers without a salary. Omid picked up the salary of the two most experienced teachers, Ziagul and Zurgona, and of the headmaster. But the remaining four women teachers found themselves unemployed.

All four decided to stay on and teach in a voluntary capacity, at some personal sacrifice. Mallalai, who has taught here for 4 years, has to sell chickens and eggs to cover the cost of even getting to school. 25 year-old Gulpaki, is studying at the university at a cost of 2,000 Afghanis ($30) a month. Gulgutay, who has been teaching Class One for eight years, probably needs the money most because her husband is a laborer and she has four children to feed.

This is real dedication. When I ask why they volunteer, they tell me that they want the girls to have the same chance that they had.

These women are all deeply committed to education, and some are still making up for the five years of schooling they lost when the Taliban suspended girls’ education (1997-2001). 38 year-old Ziagul, and Zurgona, 36, are in their final year at university where they get teased for their age by younger class-mates like Gulgutay. They can take the ribbing, but find it harder to juggle the demands of home and a full-time teaching job at Fatima Zahra. Zugul explains (a bit defensively) that this is why she and Zurgona are not top of their class. They are all fiercely committed to education in Fatima Zahra.

But there is more to all this than education. These six teachers like the work and each other. They are prepared to go without pay until things get sorted out, but say it cannot last for long. If they don’t receive a salary by the end of the year, they may have to leave.


Why is it so important to have women teachers? This can be best answered by looking at the drop-out rate at Fatima Zahra. The school started in 1997 with 13 girls in first grade. Nine years later, 12 of the same girls are now in class 9. Only one girl, Basara, has left before graduating.

To lose only one student during nine years must be a record for Afghanistan because it becomes harder for girls to remain in school as they get older. The pressure becomes enormous. Mother needs help looking after younger siblings. Father does not want his daughter to go out in public. Both parents are worried about safety. Other villagers feel that young women should keep themselves to themselves. Finally, by the time they reach the age of 18 (grade 9) many girls are engaged or even married.

To judge from its low drop-out rate, Fatima Zahra has managed to offset these pressures, and one reason is its women teachers. They were surprised and upset when Basara – an excellent student – dropped out. One of them went to visit the family and found that Basara’s elder brother was the head of household. Because he had not gone to school himself, he was jealous of his sister and ordered her to remain at home. Poor Basara is now sitting at home passing the time. Her friends shake their heads in sympathy.

But Basara is an exception. Generally speaking, the families are solidly behind the school. For example, four girls in the class are engaged to be married, but their parents and future in-laws support their decision to stay at school. The father of one of the girls, Basree, 18, told her fiancé that he would only authorize the engagement if Basree was allowed to complete school before the wedding.

When school becomes part of the marriage agreement, then it really is time to talk of a “culture” of education. Credit this to the women teachers of Fatima Zahra.

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Oct 16th, 2005

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