Jaala A. Thibault

Changes in Kabul Classrooms


Source: The New York Times

Link: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/changes-in-kabul-classrooms/

Eleven years ago, if you walked into a classroom in Kabul, this is what you might have seen: all boys; Korans resting on every desk; men leading prayers and study; only religious subjects being taught at every school and university in the country; students wearing uniforms of payraan tumbaan (long shirts over baggy pants) and turbans; empty chairs pushed to the back of the classrooms where girls once sat.

And if you closed your eyes, you heard only the low drone of the boys’ voices raised in unison, repeating Koranic verses over and over again.

You would not have seen women teaching or girls attending lessons. Women were secretly teaching girls in hidden basements, only to be punished severely when discovered. During that time, women were barred from schools and universities, their places in society cemented in their homes. They had no choice but to teach and learn incognito.

In 2001, in a classroom in Kabul, you wouldn’t have heard the voices of women and girls giggling, laughing and teasing one another. You would have squinted in the darkness of a mud-brick building, glancing at the silhouettes of empty chairs in the back of the room, wondering where the pupils had gone.

Though I did not see these things with my own eyes, I might as well have had. Through photographs, books and the stories I have heard from friends, colleagues and students, these images are now so clear I almost feel like I was there.

Eleven years ago, I was definitely not squinting in the darkness of a classroom in Kabul; I was standing at the head of a bright, clean classroom full of sixth graders in the United States, teaching for the first time.

Though I always knew I’d become a teacher, I never planned to use my ability to educate as a tool for building nations.

But then the attacks of Sept. 11 happened – and just as they changed many lives, they changed my life, too.

As I watched the towers fall and people mourning in disbelief all over the world, I knew that I had to go to Afghanistan. I’m not an Afghan, but I desperately wanted to go there to help educate the girls and to learn about a culture that had been so hidden for such a long time. But at that point I wasn’t quite sure how to get there, so I joined the Peace Corps. I ended up teaching in China and Micronesia, but never forgot about Afghanistan.

Then, two years ago, Afghanistan came to me.

After completing my M.A. in teaching English, I was introduced to a Department of State fellowship program that sends English teachers abroad for a school year to teach at universities and schools all over the world. When I inquired about the program, I found out that they would be sending two fellows to Afghanistan. I immediately contacted the program and told them that I would like to go to Kabul. They obliged.

Today, not only do I find myself standing in the front of a classroom in Kabul, I find myself in a much different classroom than you would have seen here eleven years ago.

Courtesy of Jaala ThibaultThe author in Kabul.

In a classroom at the University in Kabul, you can see a mixture of boys and girls learning side by side, and men and women teaching a variety of subjects. There are girls wearing mini skirts over black skinny jeans, ballet slippers with fish-net stockings, knock-off Versace sunglasses and trendy head scarves from Dubai. Women walk around with plucked and shaped eyebrows, mouths lined with red lipstick, bleached-blond bangs strategically peeking out of their head covers. Boys sport metallic, shiny suits, hair styled like the latest Bollywood actors, Swiss watches on their wrists and smart phones on hand.

The soft and strong voices tangle in discussion, telling stories of the past and present:

“During the Taliban times, I taught myself English by reading a dictionary in my room. I did not know what English sounded like; I just had an idea in my mind. Now I have the choice to attend a course with a real teacher from an English-speaking country. Who ever thought this opportunity would come to me? It is a dream come true.”

“Today the university serves many purposes; it is both a ‘Fashiontoon,’ (a place of fashion) and a ‘Pohantoon’ (University)! I used to wear a uniform to school, now I can wear an Italian suit and tie. I think I look better like this.”

“I love teaching, but I could not stay here during those times. Women were not allowed to teach, and since that was my job, I went to Iran and taught at a university in Tehran. It was safer there and I could continue to teach without fearing for my life. Now that I have returned to my home, I am happy that I am accepted again as a professor.”

“Coming to university is the highlight of my day now. Back then, I only left my apartment once a week to shop. My mind was dying. Now I look forward to searching the Internet and teaching my students. This is life; those times were death.”

“I was so young at that time. I never remembered to bring my turban to school, and I would be punished every time for not wearing a proper uniform. One day, I knew that the principal would visit my class and I didn’t have my hat. Fortunately, the boy next to me had very long fabric for his that day, so we sat close together and wrapped it around both of our heads. We thought we were so smart, but when the principal saw us he knew what we did. I suffered that day, but I still laugh about my innocence in trying to solve the problem.”

“When the Taliban was in control, we [male Professors] all had to teach religious subjects. It didn’t matter that we were philosophers, linguists or mathematicians. We were told that our university was a madrassa and we should treat it as such. Now I teach Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and play football with my students in the morning. A diverse education is better for the students.”

The other day, as I and the Afghan professors I have been training prepared to teach a short course on American culture at a Kabul university, we faced one problem. It was not the lack of heating and proper supplies, or the fear of retribution. As we looked around the classroom, we realized that there were not enough chairs for all the students.

Today, instead of peering into an empty building, wondering where the girls have gone, I look into an empty, dimly lighted classroom, trying to find enough desks for the learners about to flood into my life. This is a problem I am willing to face.

Jaala A. Thibault taught English and trained teachers at Kabul Education University in 2010 and 2011 as part of the English Language Fellows Program under the State Department. She returns intermittently to Afghanistan to conduct teacher-training workshops. In the United States, she teaches English as a Second Language at Santa Barbara City College.

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