Today’s Solutions: July 21, 2024

How a former Taliban fighter learned that teaching young girls is the best way to help impoverished, war-torn Kashmir.

Karin Ronnow | November 2007 issue
How a former Taliban fighter learned that teaching young girls is the best way to help impoverished, war-torn Kashmir.
Going from Taliban fighter to girls’ school teacher isn’t a typical career move. But it is one that Shaukat Ali has successfully made. Back in the late 1990s, Ali says, “I was a freedom fighter. I killed other people.” Now 28, he’s a mathematics teacher at the Patika Girls’ School in Kashmir’s Neelum River Valley.

His conversion—and his dedication to a brighter future for Kashmir’s children—offers hope in a region ravaged by 60 years of war, intense poverty and illiteracy and the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.
Ever since the British divided Pakistan and India in 1947—Muslims in Pakistan, Hindus in India—claims to the Himalayan border region have sparked three wars, not one of which has resolved the dispute. Adding to Kashmir’s chaotic violence over the years have been separatist “freedom fighters,” or mujahideen, who want independence from both countries. The result is a war-torn, heavily militarized region stuck in political limbo.
It was an obvious recruiting ground when Pakistan’s leaders were seeking foot soldiers for the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. With the help of the government, mosques and religious schools, or madrassas, set up training camps for young militants, giving a great deal of power to conservative clerics who co-operated. When the Soviets withdrew, the emerging Taliban continued to tap Kashmir for angry, poor, rural boys and men willing to do its bidding for a price.
Ali was just 17 when Taliban recruiters came to his impoverished village in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in search of boy soldiers. He signed up. “Maybe during that time, I was thinking: ‘I’m a good person. I’m doing the right thing,’” the balding, bearded, bespectacled Ali recalls, sitting in the school’s corrugated metal classroom.
As he talks, a large fan slices through the thick, muggy air, but nothing can dispel the oppressive heat. Ali was sent initially to the republic of Chechnya for training, and then on to Afghanistan, where he fought against rival militias.
It was there, in Afghanistan, that Ali began to question the Taliban ideology in general and its treatment of women in particular. Then 9/11 happened in the United States, and Ali became convinced that what he had considered a righteous battle was no longer defensible. “After September 11th,” he says, “good changed to bad and bad changed to good.”
The Taliban had been using Islam to justify killing the enemy, he says, but 9/11 involved the deaths of thousands of innocent people. That contradiction was the last straw, he says. He had finally seen enough “guns and killing.” He took advantage of the chaos in Afghanistan just before the U.S. invasion and fled back home to Kashmir. He changed his name, went back to school and started tutoring to make money.
Then something else became alarmingly clear to Ali: Education was the only antidote to the terrorists’ rhetoric. Kashmiris’ ignorance of the outside world, combined with desperate poverty, made them especially vulnerable to manipulation.
“These people who are not going to school, that’s the basis of terrorism,” Ali says. “Any person can use them against our country. It’s sectarianism due to illiteracy.”
Ali is convinced educating girls in particular is the only way his country will change. Female literacy in the villages runs at about 4 percent. But educated girls will become educated mothers, argues Ali, and insist on education for their children, which could set the nation on a new track.
Conservative elders disagree. The Taliban’s oppression of women is well-known. Back in the 1990s, when Ali questioned its persecution of females, “The Taliban said, ‘We will not compromise on this,’” he recalls.

But Ali argues that educating women is consistent with the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings. “Some think women are inferior, but the Qu’ran says there is no difference,” Ali says. “The prophet said it is the order of God to send girls to school.
“It will spoil the next 15 to 20 years if the children grow up illiterate. They will be big troublemakers. But if they are educated, they can use dialogue and negotiation; they can distinguish between propaganda and reality. We are responsible for that before God.”
Although leaders in Kashmir were making some progress, albeit slowly, toward offering public, non-religious education, that effort was largely derailed by the massive earthquake that struck the region on October 8, 2005. Some 9,000 schools were destroyed that day. Reconstruction has been alarmingly slow. Many poor families wind up enrolling their children in madrassas, like the Red Mosque in Islamabad, that offer free tuition, room and board—and churn out another generation of Islamic militants.
The Patika school is the shining hope of its small, remote village. Many families still live in the ubiquitous blue United Nations tents or ramshackle homes cobbled together of spare parts. Many adults are still unemployed. But the village girls are embarking on their second year in a building donated by the Bozeman, Montana-based Central Asia Institute. The red-roofed school, one of only 400 rebuilt since the quake, offers 350 students and 37 teachers, including Ali, hope.
“Now I am helping. I am a teacher,” Ali says. “With the help of God, I am a self-made man.”
And with Ali’s help, Kashmir may have a lot of self-made women too.

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