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Afghanistan’s education minister offers education for girls

December 18, 1996

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ He wears a combat jacket, gets corrected by his elders and can’t remember the last time he was in school. But the Taliban’s education minister knows what he wants.

``The Taliban wants an Islamic education for everyone,″ says Al-Haj Mullawi Abdel Salem Hanifi, 27. ``We are only against social corruption and immorality.″

For Hanifi, that means music is out, girls and boys should remain separate and girls should be educated principally to be wives.

When the Taliban took Kabul on Sept. 27, they shut down all schools for girls, although boys were allowed to continue going to classes.

In other areas of Afghanistan that have been under Taliban control for three years, girls are permitted to attend school only until age 8 _ and only to study the Islamic holy book, the Koran.

The Taliban also force women to wear a head-to-toe covering with mesh over the eyes, and ban them from workplaces where they might mix with men.

Responding to international criticism of the restrictions, Hanifi says the Taliban have been misunderstood.

``The Taliban are an educated people,″ he said. ``Everyone wants an educated wife.″

He said all avenues of education eventually would be open to women, as long as they studied separately from men.

``I have no problem with an engineering faculty at a university that is just for women,″ he said.

International aid organizations operating in Kabul have been pressing the Taliban government to reopen girls’ schools. The U.N. refugee agency said Sunday that it had received assurances from Hanifi that when the school year resumes on March 6, schools would open for girls of all ages throughout areas under Taliban control.

``They committed themselves for the first time to education for males and females through 12th grade,″ said Terry Pitzner, who heads the U.N. refugee office in Kabul. ``There’s a change.″

But, interviewed separately on Sunday, Hanifi left a lot of questions unanswered.

He said the Taliban government couldn’t give a date for the reopening of schools, and said girls wouldn’t be allowed to return to classes until there is a ``restoration of peace,″ although he would not explain why fighting in northern Afghanistan would make it unsafe for girls to go to school in Kabul _ or why it is safe for boys to study.

Nor would he say why in Kandahar, where the Taliban movement began three years ago and where there has been peace ever since, girls are not allowed to study beyond the age of 8.

Hanifi, who is from Faryab province in northern Afghanistan, seemed nervous during his first meeting with foreign reporters at the Ministry of Education, a Soviet-built building with blown-out windows and no electricity, overlooking Kabul’s central bus station.

Speaking through an interpreter, he said he had completed five years of high school in Afghanistan, and had studied for a year at an Islamic college in Karachi, Pakistan _ he wasn’t sure when, exactly.

Six years ago, he joined the mujahedeen, or holy warriors, trying to rout Afghanistan’s secular socialist government, but he found them corrupt. Three years ago, he joined the Taliban and fought with them. In November, Taliban leader Mohammed Omar Amirul Momin appointed him education minister.

Outfitted in a black-and-white turban, flowing beige robes and a green combat jacket, Hanifi looked to senior ministry officials for answers when reporters started asking specifics.

Why, for instance, did he insist the curriculum needs to expunge communist influences when the government since 1992 had been an Islamic one?

The curriculum director, A.S. Hamidi, smiled and spoke to him in Pashtun.

``The previous curriculum was not communist,″ Hanifi corrected himself. ``But it needs improvement.″

Asked to elaborate, he said that increased study of Islam would replace classes the Taliban considered un-Islamic. He offered music as an example.

``We oppose music,″ he said, ``because it creates a strain in the mind, and hampers study of Islam.″

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