Women's Literacy Makes Headway in Afghan West

Nazira looked up proudly from a notebook bearing a United Nations logo to show a series of words written in red ink.

Six months ago, Nazira could neither read nor write, but the 27-year-old from Afghanistan’s western Herat province is now able to transcribe the names of her two children, her father and husband.

Her literacy skills may still be basic, but she is confident enough to reads out a verse from a Persian poem, saying, “Whoever acquires knowledge is qualified and capable.”

Opposition to women’s education lingers on in rural Afghanistan, but the last decade has seen significant improvements in this western province.

There are 660 literacy courses running in Herat’s villages and districts, of which 558 are for women like Nazira, according to Abdul Nasir Maududi, who oversees the courses for the education ministry.

Provincial officials hope the courses will enable women to play a fuller role in society, and also help discourage domestic violence.

Each course typically has 20 to 30 students; Nasima Hussaini, a teacher in Karukh district, has been teaching 21 students for the last year.

“While serving illiterate women in my society, I can also contribute to my family by earning a salary,” she told IWPR. “I’m hoping that thanks to these courses, changes are already taking place for Afghan women.”

Women attending the courses say they find them hugely empowering. Not all Afghan husbands will allow their wives to study or work, and Hussaini is grateful to her husband Sayed Nasruddin Nik-Nam for his backing.

Nik-Nam oversees the district’s literacy courses, and is proud of his wife’s contribution. Her work has also changed the dynamic of their domestic life.

“When my wife is busy teaching, I do the chores at home. In my opinion, there is no problem with women being educated,” Nik-Nam said.

Most of the courses are in the districts closest to Herat city – Injil, followed by Zinda Jan and Karukh. Maududi said Muslim clerics and the media have been engaged in the campaign to get women to learn to read and write.

The courses were set up by the UN children’s fund UNICEF, while the World Food Programme has provided foodstuffs to act as an incentive for participants. Sayed Mokaram, a literacy course officer in Karukh, said each student received 25 kilograms of wheatgrain and three litres of cooking oil per month in return for attending.

“We and the other agencies have two aims here –first, to assist needy households, and second, to make them literate,” Mokaram said.

The food handouts are key to the attendance of some students.

“When I take the wheat and cooking oil home to my husband, he’s very happy,” Magul, a 40-year-old in Karukh, said. “Many men might not let their wives attend if it weren’t for the food distribution.”

Despite the food handouts, though, there are still plenty of men in Herat who are reluctant to allow their wives to study.

Gulsom, a 24-year-old resident of Guzara district, would like to learn to read but her husband Mohammad Nabi is preventing her.

He believes women should stay at home and do the housework, and men should not allow their wives to be part of the world outside.

“I’m illiterate and I don’t have any problems in life,” he said. “What would be the point of my wife learning to read and write?”

Some clerics in Herat have helped maintain such beliefs.

According to Maulawi Mohammad Ismail, a religious scholar in Guzara district, “There is no reference in Islam to indicate that education is essential for women.”

However, education ministry official Maududi, who has a degree in Islamic studies from Herat University, disputed this, saying that when the Koran discusses the importance of knowledge, it does not mention either men or women, implying that education is important for both.

Fatema Yusefi, who sits on the women’s council in Injil’s Ghelwan village, urged people to ignore mullahs who oppose women’s education.

“This is a right that Islam has given us,” she said. “Education is the right of every human being.”

Shugofa, 34, managed to persuade her husband to allow her to learn to read, with some difficulty.

“Attending the literacy course is very important to me because I had to do so much to get permission,” she said.

Jalil Mohammadi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Herat.