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This story is part of a cycle in which women play a major role


Nasreen’s Secret School
A true story from Afghanistan

My granddaughter, Nasreen, lives with me in Herat, an ancient city in Afghanistan. Art and music and learning once flourished here.

Then the soldiers came and changed everything. The art and music and learning are gone. Dark clouds hang over the city.

Poor Nasreen sat at home all day, because girls are forbidden to attend school. The Taliban soldiers don't want girls to learn about the world, the way Nasreen's mama and I learned when we were girls.

One night, soldiers came to our house and took my son away, with no explanation.
We waited many days and nights for his return.

Finally, Nasreen's frantic mama went searching for him, even though going out alone in the streets was forbidden for women and girls.

The full moon passed our window many times as Nasreen and I waited.

Nasreen never spoke a word. She never smiled. She just sat, waiting for her mama and papa to return.
I knew I had to do something.

I heard whispers about a school— a secret school for girls— behind a green gate in a nearby lane. I wanted Nasreen to attend this secret school. I wanted her to learn about the world, as I had. I wanted her to speak again.

So one day, Nasreen and I hurried down the lanes until we came to the green gate. Luckily, no soldier saw us.

I tapped lightly. The teacher opened the gate, and quickly slipped inside.

We crossed the courtyard to the school— one room in a private house, filled with girls.

Nasreen took a place at the back of the room. Please Allah, open her eyes to the world, I prayed as I lefther there.

Nasreen didn't speak to the other girls. She didn't speak to the teacher. At home, she remained silent.

I was fearful that the soldiers would discover the school. But the girls were clever. They slipped in and out of school at different times, so as not to arouse suspicion. And when boys saw soldiers near the green gate, they distracted them.

I heard of a soldier who pounded on the gate, demanding to enter.

But all he found was a room filled with girls reading the Koran, which was allowed. The girls had hidden their schoolwork, outwitting the soldier.

One of the girls, Mina, sat next to Nasreen every day. But they never spoke to each other. While the girls were learning, Nasreen stayed inside herself.
My worry was deep.

When school closed for the long winter recess, Nasreen and I sat by the fire. Relatives gave us what food and firewood they could spare.

We missed her mama and my son more than ever. Would we ever know what had happened?

The day Nasreen returned to school, Mina whisperer in her ear, “I missed you.” “I missed you too,” Nasreen answered back!

With those words, her first since her mama went searching, Nasreen opened her heart to Mina.

And she smiled for the first time since her papa was taken away.

At last, little by little, day by day, Nasreen learned to read, to write, to add and subtract.

Each night she showed me what she had discovered that day. Windows opened for Nasreen in that little schoolroom.

She learned about the artists and writers and scholars and mystics who, long ago, made Herat beautiful.

Nasreen no longer feels alone. The knowledge she holds inside will always be with her, like a good friend.

Now she can see blue sky beyond those dark clouds.

As for me, my mind is at ease. I still wait for my son and his wife. But the soldiers can never close the windows that have opened for my granddaughter.
Author’s note

The Global Fund for Children, a nonprofit organization committed to helping children around the world, contacted me about basing a book on a true story from one of the groups they support.

I was immediately drawn to an organization in Afghanistan that founded and supported secret schools for girls during the 1996-2001 reign of the Taliban.

The founder of these schools, who requested anonymity, shared the story of Nasreen and her grandmother with me. Nasreen's name has been changed.

Before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan,
·70% of schoolteachers were women
·40% of doctors were women
·50% of students at Kabul University were women.

After the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan,

·girls weren't allowed to attend school or university
·women weren't allowed to work outside the home

·women weren't allowed to leave home without a male relative as chaperone

·women were forced to wear a burqa that covered their entire head and body, with only a small opening for their eyes.

There was no singing or dancing or kite flying. Art and culture, in the birthplace of the immortal poet Rumi, was banished. The colossal Bamiyan Buddhas, carved into the side of a mountain, were destroyed. Years of isolation and fear had begun.

But there was also bravery from citizens who defied the Taliban in many ways, including supporting the secret schools for girls.
Their courage has never wavered.
Jeannete Winter

Nasreen’s Secret School – A true story from Afghanistan
New York, Beach Lane Books, 2009

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