Some 88 girls and teachers fell ill at three different schools within a week in northern Afghanistan. Authorities believe the sickness is due to poison gas attacks, and have not yet identified who harmed the girls and teachers. The Taliban has been suspected but claim they were not involved and denounce the attacks, which some people consider a terrorist action.
On the Wednesday and Saturday attacks, reports said the girls felt "dizzy and nauseous." The girls who became sick on Sunday experienced fainting, vomiting, headaches, and chills. There were no fatalities, but some girls are continuing to receive medical care.
Male Afghan students outnumber female students six to one, and Afghan girls pursuing education are no strangers to persecution. The recent incident only gained attention because there were multiple attacks in a relatively short amount of time. Girls have been attacked or even killed for attending school. In one horrific case in 2008, Taliban fighters threw acid on fifteen girls and teachers on route to school in Kandahar city. "A real man would never throw acid on the face of a little girl," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in response. "Beside it being a cowardly act, it is an un-Islamic act."
The attacks against the girls can be viewed as a fight against the government. Some conservative groups may view the country's progress, such as educating females, as destroying the culture. For example, the Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan, remain against girls' education:
"There is no way around it," says Bashir Khan, a businessman in Kabul who counts himself among the staunchly anti-Taliban Pashtuns. "In Pashtun culture, a woman's place is in the home. Even some of the most educated Pashtuns believe this. I'm willing to let my daughters go to school but only to a point, maybe until they are 11 or 12 years old. After that, why do they need an education? Their life will be in the home."
Pashtun men like Khan resent the emphasis Western nations have placed on girls' education, arguing that they are trying to destroy Pashtun culture. "It's an insult to our way of life," he says. "We will not allow it. We see what happens to women in the West; we see it on television, in their music videos and movies. We will never let our women become so corrupted."
Some students poisoned last week expressed concern that their parents will no longer allow them to go to school. When the Taliban led the country from 1996 to 2001, girls were not allowed to go to school. Currently, it is estimated that about 30 percent of girls are actually attending schools in Afghanistan.
Do you think children become corrupted through education, as Khan suggests? Are Western-style images of femininity a corrupting influence?