Can sharia be good for women?

Across Afghanistan, girls and women are now receiving an education: but it is a purely Islamic one

Shaegh Fazil still thinks about the time when learning could trigger a beating. In those days, she always wore house-cleaning clothes under her burqa to ensure that the Taliban would never find out that she was a student at a secret school. "I was always so afraid," she said. We were speaking in the grounds of Herat University in western Afghanistan. Sunlight shone blue through the upturned burqa framing her face.

Now that Shaegh can learn openly, she studies sharia law, which stems from the teachings of the Koran and Sunna, the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. "I'm so happy I can study sharia," she said. "I love it. I've loved it since I was a child." As with the other women I interviewed, I wondered what it really meant to "love sharia" and if Shaegh had ever been given a choice about it.

The study of sharia includes subjects such as Islamic law, Islamic philosophy, and Arabic. Students at the country's state-controlled sharia departments can also study international and criminal law, and basic civil rights.There are no statistics for the number of women studying sharia at university in Afghanistan. In Herat, about 90 out of the department's 480 students are women, up from just 22 three years ago; in Kabul there are about 100 female students out of 500. Women such as Shaegh Fazil are part of the educated vanguard in a country where an estimated 80 per cent of women are illiterate. Only 30 per cent of school students are girls. Which means only a tiny elite are enrolled in university.

The government is set to boost the numbers of girls studying Islam: earlier this year it announced that as part of its five-year plan it would build a network of madrasas for girls in every one of the country's 34 provinces. Private madrasas are springing up as well. Investing in women's religious education is big news in a country where women still cannot pray in all but a few mosques.

Studying sharia may be seen as part of women's rightful freedoms, but there are those in Afghanistan who question whether a strict interpretation of Islamic law should be directly applicable to the country's legal system. "The Koran is very important to our laws, but it was written for that time, not for this time," said Herat province's chief prosecutor Maria Bashir, the first woman to hold such a post in the whole country. "For example, in the case of adultery, the punishment according to the Koran is stoning . . . Now we use international law and an adulterer will go to jail for a minimum of two years, a maximum of five."

Role model

Bashir is a model for the kind of woman the west wanted to promote when it helped topple the Taliban five years ago. In fact, the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice flew Bashir to lunch in Washington as soon as she was appointed. But her highly public role challenges many assumptions in a country where the sight of a woman simply leaving the house without a male family escort can still be unusual and frowned upon.

Bashir's reference point is the relatively progressive 1964 constitution and the new constitution passed in 2004, which enshrined equal rights for men and women. But the truth is that the country's official legal system is badly damaged. Outside the major cities, it is practically non-existent.

"Three years ago, people had a very clear idea of the future for Afghanistan. Now we don't have such a clear idea," said Bashir. One of her biggest disappointments has been the slow pace of judicial reform.

Not only are Bashir's ideas imperilled, so is her life. She said she feared for her and her family and had received "many" death threats, mostly from people who object to a woman holding such an important position. She has bodyguards, but only during the work day, and her government-provided car is not bullet-proof. "Maybe the government will give me a bullet-proof car, but after it is too late," she mused.

The space for women such as Bashir to operate in Afghanistan is shrinking, said Meryem Aslan, programme director for the UN's Development Fund for Women (Unifem). "One of the main things Unifem has done is to help open a space so that women can negotiate their rights, so that officially there is no barrier for them to go to school, university or work," she said. This progress is threatened, Aslan warns, by a re-energised Taliban on the one side, and militia leaders and warlords, who have taken control of vast tracks of countryside, on the other.

The ongoing epidemic of school-burnings in Afghanistan shows how potent a symbol women's education and empowerment can be. Last month, Unicef Afghanistan said that school-burning, until recently confined mainly to the south of the country where the insurgency is strongest, has spread through the rest of Afghanistan. In the four southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul alone, Unicef estimates that more than 380 of the 748 schools are no longer providing an education to students, throwing more than 105,000 children out of school. Most of these closures affect girls.

Wave of madrasas

In addition to state-funded schools, a wave of new, private madrasas are being built across the country. In Kabul's Karte Se neighbourhood, the Last Prophet madrasa is headed by Ayatollah Mohseni, a prominent Shia scholar famed for helping lead the fight against the Soviet occupation. The school is an example of what a lot of money can build, even in this war-ravaged country, where many students still study in shattered buildings or in the open air. The campus will one day hold a large mosque, library, boys and girls' dormitories, and classrooms. While it is still largely a construction site, 150 female students study in classrooms organised around a courtyard. Boys' classes have not yet started. The madrasa's student body varies widely in age, a legacy of the Taliban's exclusion of women and girls from education.

Palwasha Kakar, a gender expert who has been researching in Afghanistan for two years, is one of the few people who are prepared publicly to question the need for nationwide madrasas. She fears that the government's plans will back- fire. "Madrasas are so easily co-opted by the mullah system, by the Taliban system or Taliban-like ideas," she said, shaking her head.

The women at the Last Prophet madrasa would passionately disagree. "Our country needs us to study Islam because only by Islam will we change our society," said 36-year-old Someha. "First of all, we need honesty and then we need to help the poor, because they never get what they deserve."

Another student, Mahmouda, 17, was certain that religious schooling will bring respect and unity. "Muslims must fight for their rights and to get people to accept them," she said. "Sunni and Shia, we need to fight together."

Mahmouda spoke quickly and emphatically. Her answer to my questions about the need for Islamic education, was direct and unanswerable: "If you have a better programme, then give it to us."