Background: the Taliban and Girls’ Education

The Taliban are a fundamentalist Muslim militant group that first emerged in northern Pakistan in the early 1990s (though they had long held almost complete power in neighboring Afghanistan). In Pakistan, the Taliban set up their headquarters in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), an area bordering Afghanistan and dominated by the Pashtun tribal culture. The Taliban promised the Pashtuns living there that they “would restore peace and security and enforce their own austere version of Sharia, or Islamic law, once in power” (“Who Are the Taliban”). In so doing, the Taliban removed themselves from Pakistan’s judicial and social framework, declaring themselves to be a law unto themselves, accountable to no one.

Far from bringing about peace, the Taliban imposed a strict form of Sharia law wherever they gained a foothold and severely oppressed the people who came under their influence. People caught thieving were executed; men were forced to grow beards; women were made to wear the all-covering burka; television, music, and the cinema were all banned; and – most devastating of all – children were discouraged and even banned from attending school.

Wherever they secured their dominance, the Taliban were ruthless in their campaign against education. But it wasn’t just education in general that the Taliban were against. Rather, it was female education in particular they were seeking to abolish. Waging an extremely violent campaign to keep girls from going to school, the Taliban’s crusade reached its climax in December 2008 when they issued an edict declaring that all schools in the NWFP with female enrolment must shut down by January 15 – or face the consequences. By then, people knew that the Taliban did not make such threats in vain; many people who were proponents or supporters of female education had already been targeted and killed, and hundreds of schools had already been bombed and destroyed. Even though many schools did not re-open after the winter holiday that year, the Taliban were ruthless in their enforcement of the edict. True to their word, the Taliban forced 900 schools to close in the Swat Valley alone, depriving hundreds of thousands of students (mostly girls) of an education. Between 2009-2012 it is estimated that the militants bombed at least 838 schools, killing at least 30 children and injuring at least 100 more.

The Taliban’s reign of terror was so successful that even after the Pakistani military regained control of the Swat Valley in 2009, about “120,000 girls and 8000 female teachers were too scared to return to school” (“Pakistan,” GCPEA). This is because, though the Pakistani military had managed to push the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, small pockets of militant groups continued to filter back into the area and terrorize people who were not keeping to the Taliban’s strict code of conduct. One father told a local news agency that he and other parents in the region couldn’t “risk sending our daughters to school,” adding: “I have seen dead bodies, beheaded bodies with my own eyes. I don’t want to be made an example of!” (qtd. in “Pakistan,” Relief Web).

Though the military had regained control, the Swat Valley was far from being a safe place. It was out of this context that Malala Yousafzai emerged, bravely raising her voice against men who would much rather she remain silent.


Key Vocabulary Words
  • Female Education
  • Discrimination (gender)
  • Taliban
Discussion Questions
  1. How would your life change if you were never allowed to go to school again (in person or online)? How would your future plans and opportunities change? How would your perception of yourself change? Others’ perception of you?
  2. How would your family’s life be different if your mother had never learned to read or write?
  3. Why is access to education such a powerful tool of control? Why do you think groups in power would want to limit people’s access to education?
  4. Have you or someone you know ever been discriminated against because of your/their gender? Describe this situation and how it made you feel.
Activity Ideas
  1. Boys Only: A Lesson in Discrimination
    1. Without any explanation, begin the class by sending all the girls out of the class, asking them to wait quietly outside the room. Proceed with class as normal for a few minutes before inviting the girls back into the room.
    2. Ask the students—both the girls and the boys—what this experience felt like, how it felt to be left out or to remain in class when others were excluded, etc.
    3. Use this experience as an introduction to the Taliban and the way it prohibited girls from going to school, even to the point of death if they disobeyed and tried to continue their education.
  2. Real Life Integration: The Power of Education
    1. For one day, have students record every example of reading or writing having an impact on their life or their family’s life. This should include every time they or one of their family members needed to be able to read, write, or understand math to accomplish something—from reading a recipe to getting onto the right bus, etc—and also the broader effects—their house was bought with money from their parents’ jobs which required reading and writing, their parents can drive because they could read the driving test, etc.
    2. Spend time sharing and discussing these lists as a class, imagining how different their lives would be without the education they and their family members have received.
  3. Real life/Kinesthetic Integration: Silenced
    1. The Taliban is intent on silencing the voices of females and proponents of female education (As students will soon discover, the Taliban went to violent extremes to try to silence Malalas’s voice). Plan an Hour or Day of Silence as a reminder of the people around the world who do not have freedom of speech and what it feels like to not be able to express yourself. Have each student commit to absolute silence for one hour or day (clarifying exceptions as needed in other classes, for example). Be sure students communicate this ahead of time to families and teachers, explaining the purpose of the Hour or Day of the Silence (a great opportunity for teaching others about this important issue!).
    2. Ask students to keep a journal throughout the hour/day, reflecting on their emotions and challenges.
    3. Debrief about this experience as a class, connecting it to the importance of freedom of speech and to places in the world where people live without that freedom.
  4. Math Integration: The Crisis in Numbers
    1. Give students time to collect current statistics about the number of children and/or girls who are unable to receive an education in different areas around the world. The Fast Facts feature on the UNICEF Education page includes a number of relevant statistics.
    2. Individually or in pairs, ask students to give meaning and perspective to these statistics by comparing them to numbers they’re familiar with (e.g. There are as many children denied education world wide as the entire population of Italy. Or twenty two percent of Sub-Saharan children do not go to school. In our town, that would mean 1,000 children who would have to stay home).
    3. Next ask students to choose the statistics from this research that they find the most important or astounding and convert them into a visual, such as the appropriate type of graph or pictograph, that could communicate the numbers most effectively.
    4. Display these graphs around your classroom or school on eye-catching posters to help educate your community about this important issue.
  5. Writing/Interpersonal Integration: Remembering to be Grateful
    1. After learning about the many children worldwide who are denied an education because of discrimination, poverty, violence or disaster, spend time as a class acknowledging the immense privilege of your own access to education. Many students may have always considered school to be a burden instead of a great privilege that other children are literally willing to die for. Give them time to write or draw a private response to this realization.
    2. Distribute small blank cards to your students (perhaps decorated with the students’ Truck Art from your study of Pakistan or with the students’ reflective drawing from this activity). Ask each student to write a Thank You card to someone who has contributed to their education. This could be a parent, a significant teacher, a school bus driver or a janitor, each who have made the students’ school experience possible. Be sure to review basic letter writing format and etiquette, encouraging the students to be specific in their gratitude.
    3. Distribute these cards to their intended recipients. Consider integrating the skill of writing Thank You cards into your classroom activities throughout the year, fostering a spirit of gratitude and positive communication in your students.
  6. Literary/Creative Writing Integration: Learning Through Stories
    1. There are many excellent picture books about the rights of children and the value of education (See Additional Resources). If possible, gather as many of these books as you have access to and incorporate them into your study (even older students can enjoy listening to a good story):
    2. Consider having an extended story time when students can sit comfortably on the floor, enjoy Pakistani chai or mango lassis, and listen to you read the books, ideally discussing each one after you read it and allowing students to respond to what they hear.
    3. Students could also read one or more of these books to another class or to the whole school during an assembly, using it as a starting point of a larger presentation about children’s right to education.
    4. Few children’s books deal directly with the situation in Pakistan under the Taliban. Ask students to write their own simple story about an imagined child in Pakistan who faces an obstacle to his or her education, using what they’ve learned so far in your study of Pakistan and the Taliban. This could be expanded into an entire children’s book unit with illustrations and final products, or students could simply read their stories aloud to each other.
Additional Resources
  1. A Walnut Tree (film): Award-winning documentary about an old man, internally displaced by the conflict between the Pakistan government and the Taliban, reminiscing about his homeland.
  2. Inside the Taliban (National Geographic Documentary): A documentary about the Taliban, for older students only
  3. “Who Are the Taliban?” BBC News
  4. Right to Education (Theirworld)
  5. Education and schools (UNICEF)
  6. The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (book) and The Breadwinner (animated film): A middle years novel and film adaptation about life under the Taliban for a brave young girl and her family. Although the book and film are set in Afghanistan, the depiction of life under the Taliban closely resembles the similar situation in Pakistan. Mud City by Deborah Ellis, the third book in the Breadwinner series, is set in Pakistan.
  7. Picture Books from around the world about the rights of children and the value of education:
    1. I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres: A picture book that helps young students understand what it means to be a child with rights (including the right to education).
    2. Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education by Liz Suneby: A young girl in Afghanistan dreams of going to school.
    3. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter: Set in Afghanistan, this is the story of a girl who learns the healing and transformative power of education.
    4. Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown: Tells the story of a young girl in Columbia who has limited access to books and learning, and whose world is changed with the arrival of a traveling library.
    5. Josias, Hold the Book by Jennifer Elvgren: The story of a boy in Haiti who discovers how learning to read can help him grow a better garden and provide food for his family.
    6. Armando and the Blue Tarp School by Edith Hope Fine and Judith Pinkerton Josephson: Set in Mexico, this story is about a boy who learns to read and write and managed to save his village as a result.
    7. Gift Days by Kari-Lynn Winters: After her mother’s death a Ugandan girl struggles with all the household responsibilities until her family finds a way to help her go to school.
    8. Elena’s Story (Tales of the World) by Nancy Shaw: Little Elena in Guatemala struggles to balance school and house work, but through learning to read she discovers the gift of both.
    9. Running Shoes by Frederick Lipp: A girl in Cambodia is given a pair of shoes so that she can walk to school each day. Learning to read and write is the gift she gives in return.
    10. Yasmin’s Hammer by Ann Malaspina: The story of a girl in Bangladesh who longs to go to school but is forced to work instead, until she comes up with a plan that will change her life.