By Shaheen Buneri
Peshawar - Spogmai, 11, a girl student in Matta area of the conflict-ridden Swat valley in north-west Pakistan, had loved taking religious lessons in a nearby seminary after her classes at an English-language medium school. But now she is reluctant. "We are seeing a strange change in her," said her father Aslam Khan, a medical technician in a government hospital in Swat. "She says maddrassa people are bad because they explode bombs in girls' schools and kill innocents."
Spogmai, meaning moon, the symbol of light and beauty in eastern poetry, is utterly confused, like thousands others of her age, as how to harmonize the message of peace and love in Islamic scriptures with the rising violence and bloodshed in the once-idyllic valley.
Wednesday night, unidentified militants torched another girls' school in Matta, the town which serves as headquarters for firebrand cleric Maulana Fazlullah. The attack left hundreds of students currently taking their annual examinations in different schools badly terrified and completely uncertain about their future.
The new liberal administration which had replaced the Islamist government in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), of which Swat is a district, has repeatedly said the situation will soon be normalized and responsible people will be duly punished. But the locals are not convinced.
"Swat has been a glorious seat of learning since the time of Buddhist rulers of the area and even today it houses some of the standard educational institutions of the province," said Fazli Rabi Rahi, a local journalist and father of two teen-age girls.
"Girls are more willing to acquire education than boys, but in wake of the recent terrorist attacks on schools, I am not sure whether a parent will send her daughter to a school," he added.
During the last five days, three schools were set on fire by militants in Matta, Charbagh and Sherpalam areas of Swat.
This new "Jihad" against female education, which is a reminiscence of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan in 1990s, has spread fear through the community, and girls' schools now have a deserted look.
Khan Nawab, a school teacher in Matta town, said local militants viewed girls' education would lead to anti-Islamic trends in the society.
"They consider it something Western and suspect that women once educated will not stay at homes and will not care for Purdah (veil)," he added.
It was last summer when tourists had just started to pour into Swat valley to enjoy its snow-capped high mountains, rushing rivers and fruit orchards that 32-year-old Fazlullah launched a campaign against female education on his clandestine radio station.
"Educating girls will deviate our generation from the right path. They will become Western in their attitudes and habits. Muslim women should observe strict Purdah and they must restrict to their homes," he warned in his broadcasts.
The government of President Pervez Musharraf sent thousands of military troops to the region to cleanse the area of Fazlullah's followers in late October. The forces achieved partial success after several weeks of fighting which left hundreds dead on both sides.
But the current ruling coalition, which defeated Musharraf's political backers in February 18 elections, offered peace talks and partially withdrew the troops from the area.
It also released Fazlullah's father-in-law and pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammed, who was in police custody for the last seven years for sending hundreds of men to neighbouring Afghanistan to fight NATO-led international forces and Afghan troops.
These moves have now only encouraged the militants to conduct fresh attacks on security forces and terrorize the local population, which remains unprotected and is being forced to do what the Taliban want.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, secretary of the Private Schools Association Swat, has noticed girl students now dropping out of various schools in the district.
A large number of parents have recently asked their daughters to give up their academic career and instead go to religious seminaries out of fear of the militants.
"What other choice do they have?" Yousafzai sighed.
First published to DPA, a German News Agency