Eighteen-year-old Nilab asked for one present from her husband when they were married: his permission to let her teach. “This is the only gift I wanted,” says Nilab—two years later—standing before her fourth grade class. “And he agreed.”
Nilab’s first teaching job is here at the Zabuli School. “I plan everything so carefully, and decide each night how I will start class the next morning and precisely what I will say.”
As she’s talking, I can tell she’s nervous. She pulls me aside and asks, “When you filmed me yesterday, could you hear my voice?” Yes, I tell her. “Oh, I’m so ashamed,” she said, her eyes widening. “I made some mistakes when I was speaking Pashtu. You have to delete it.” You’re trilingual, I tell her, you’re entitled. “No,” she insists, “you have to get rid of it.”
For school director Zia Haidai taking care of the eight teachers here is as important as caring for students. “All of our teachers come from Kabul,” he says—meaning they’re city girls who aren’t used to village life, and, perhaps more important, village life isn’t used to them.
“We are not allowed to go outside the gate,” Farzana, the school’s 3rd Grade teacher says, pointing to the red metal entrance. “The villagers are very conservative, and they don’t approve of us.”
Jeans. Makeup. Visible eyes, nose and mouth. There’s a lot to disapprove of. Zia had to lay down some ground rules. No tight clothing. As little makeup as possible. Head scarves a must all day. No walking on the streets outside the school. Long skirts past the ankles are always preferable to pants.
The teachers, Zia says, are one of the major reasons why he works so hard to keep village elders and religious clerics happy. “I don’t want them to make a rule that our teachers have to wear a burqa like all the other women in the village,” Zia says. He knows that if given a choice between a burqa or a job, they’d all put on their Levis and walk.
But it’s a delicate balance, school founder Razia Jan admits. Keeping everyone happy can be time-consuming and expensive, and it’s already a struggle to keep her own school running.
And as much as I think keeping the villagers happy is a slippery slope, the security concerns demand it. That means delivering freshly slaughtered sheep meat—as they will do this Friday—is as important to their safety plan as the security guards who sit near the gate around the clock.
You don’t have to go far to find girls’ schools under attack. Last year—just 30 minutes down the road—a girls’ school was burned down by terrorists.
“When I hear a report like that on the news,” Zia says, “I call the guards to alert them.” And since phone service is often down in Afghanistan, Zia reminds the guards that they have ten different numbers to call in case of an emergency. Then he spends a sleepless night. “I’m so anxious, and only feel better when I arrive at the school the next day and see for myself that everything is alright.”