By: Somaya Mandgar
It’s Thursday and Ali heads to school as usual, but he goes in fear. It’s evaluation day.
“God forbid if we fail an evaluation. For instance, if we can’t remember a past lesson, we will be whipped with a wet stick on the soles of our feet till they turn black,” Ali,13 says. “When Thursdays come, our whole life becomes numb. We go to the mosque (classes) reluctantly.”
Small local schools with more traditional curriculums have been popular in different regions of Afghanistan for some time. Despite an uptake in more modern education methods and curriculum in schools in the past two decades, the traditional system still remains in force in more rural areas and villages, especially in the cold winter season. One of the key aspects of the system is to punish students who do not learn. It is not uncommon to see a stick ready to strike in the hand of the teacher, who is usually referred to as Mullah or Akhund.
On evaluation days, many students grease their hands and feet before going to school to help ease the burn from the whips of the cane.
Ali tells Rukhshana Media that it is his third winter attending the local school in the Sorkhqol area of Bamyan where he lives. Although he doesn’t like it, he goes on his father’s insistence.
The local curriculum usually begins with Abjad letters, and then the Qaida Baghdadi – which covers the basics of Arabic and the Holy Quran. Then the poetry of Divān of Hafez, Panj Ganj by Nizami Ganjawi, Hamasa-e-Haidari by Mirza Rafi, Shahnama by Hakim Abulqasem Ferdawsi and Arabic books such as Shrut al-Salat, Qadri and Kanzalsalkin. The general purpose of such teaching is to learn basic reading literacy.
“Wood from heaven”
In central Bamyan’s Zargaran village, residents have recruited 45-year-old Shaikh Mohammad Hassan as a teacher. About 40 male and female students are gathered around him and so busy reviewing their lessons loudly while rocking back and forth. The noise was so loud that you can barely hear the person beside you speak.
When Mr. Hassan moves to leave the classroom so that we can talk, all the children fall silent. “I’m going out for a few minutes, everyone should be busy with their lessons!” he said to the children while waving the cane in the air. “Whoever does not abide by that will die!”
Outside the classroom, Mr Hassan glorifies the cane, calling it “wood from heaven.” When asked what happens to a student who is disorganised, “I will show them courtesy with this stick,” he replies.
The unwritten law of local schools is to enforce all teaching by the corporeal punishment of the cane, not only during evaluations, but for any kind of behavior that is considered a violation by the school mullahs.
Mr. Hassan has been a school mullah teaching in different villages for several years. In an interview with Rukhshana Media, he says many children have learned to read and write under his tuition, and some of his students have gone on to study in higher education in some religious schools and universities.
He firmly defends corporal punishment as a tool to teach. He believes it has more impact than other teaching methods. “We are Muslims, but we do not work or study unless we are forced,” he said. “That’s why we study.”
In previous years, the Ministry of Education of the former governments of Afghanistan had tried to ban corporal punishment of children. But its return is on the rise as the new administrators of Afghanistan – the Taliban – welcome corporal punishment, even in their own justice system. In the last two years, there has been a noticeable increase in videos of children being physically punished by teachers on social media.
Mr. Hassan says he things the intensity of violence used in corporal punishment on children has decreased compared to the past. “Now we don’t punish the student too much,” he says. “In the past, we used to beat people who didn’t learn with a stick to the extent that they couldn’t walk.”
There is more awareness of the harm that is suffered by the individual who is physically punished at a young age and families are trying to use less violence to teach lessons. Mr. Hassan many parents have asked him to use less violence and show more kindness in his classes. But he insists that fear is a better tool. “Swear to God, the fear forces the children to learn, otherwise, they won’t abide by the rules,” he says.
“Take his flesh and give us his bones”
Ali Mohammad, 56, attended a local school throughout his childhood and learned to read and write there. He told Rukhshana Media that in the past, the violence used in the local school was so well known that it coined a well-known phrase for when a father took his child to the mullah, “I brought my child to you, teach him. In the end, his flesh is yours and his bones are mine.”
Ali Mohammad says this phrase reveals so much about the ideas he now sees as a very dangerous and painful philosophy. “When a father said this to the mullah, it meant that you can torture my child in any way,” he says.
Despite the spread of more modern schools, local schools still have many supporters in Afghan society.
Azizullah, 31, has been teaching as a local school mullah in another village of central Bamyan for four years. He says that in that time he’s had 50 to 60 students every year, most of whom were between six and 13 years old. Azizullah says that he takes 600 AFN, an amount equal to around USD$7 as a fee from each child for the three months of winter.
However, Azizullah is not a fan of “excessive” violence against children. He says that expectations have changed and any unnecessary violence should be avoided. “Nowadays, when people send their children to local schools, they emphasize to us not beat them too much. It’s impossible not to whip on their palms and soles,” he says.
There are three other local schools in the area where Azizullah’s school is with a similar number of regular students.
At least 50 boys and girls studying under Azizullah’s tuition. Students attend from 8am to 4pm with a half-hour break before noon and half-hour break in the afternoon.
Other corporal punishments in local schools include painful ear pulling and in some cases, even more extreme methods.
Mohammad Azim, 46, says in the local school he attended, there was a teacher who would bite. “There was a mullah in our village who was known as Mullah Gosh Khai (the one who bites the ear with his teeth). He punished his students only by biting the ears,” he tells Rukhshana Media. “When the children came home, you could see that the soft part of his ear was wounded. It was considered normal.”
Ramazan, 48, still hasn’t forgotten his school years. “Sole and palm whipping was normal, as was the mullah insulting us by using bad names. Then we were known by our peers by the same name later.”
Ramazan says it was also common to be made to stand for a long time on one leg and not being allowed to go to the toilet. He still hasn’t forgotten what happened to one of his classmates at school. A child who needed to go the toilet but the mullah refused to allow him to leave ended up defecating in the classroom. “He shat on himself. That later was a big humiliation for him,” he adds.
Khodadad, 41, who sent his two children aged 8 and 12 to a local school this winter, says that he is in favor of this type of education because it was how he was taught to read the Holy Quran. He says he is not afraid that they may be physically punished.
“Children should be raised harshly,” he says. “When they don’t study and don’t learn, the mullah has the right to punish them.”
He recites a poem by Saadi Shirazi, which he learned in childhood, to justify the violence.
“Nadani k Saadi morad az chi yaft, na hamoon nawisht o nah darya shegaft – ba khordi bekhord az bozorgan qafa, khoda dadash andar bozorgi safa.” (Which means, Saadi became great not because he went to the desert and parted the water, but he was slapped by an elder to learn when he was child.
Khodadad recites this poem to express a belief that the discipline needed for a successful adulthood can be slapped into a child by such a method.
However, psychologists say that studies show violent behavior towards children often has negative effects and even irreversible damage.
Mohammadullah Motamed, 39, a psychology professor at Bamyan University, says violent behavior against children is very unfortunate. He lists the potential impact including refusing to attend school, hating education, loss of self esteem, confusion, and anxiety and depression.
He says the psychological damage that children can suffer may not even be curable in some cases. “Children who face violence in childhood have more hatred and anger in their youth and for the rest of their lives,” he says. “They misbehave in front of others because of the violence and insults.”
Semin, 12, has been studying at a local school for two years. On Thursday last week, she failed to give satisfactory answers to the mullah in the weekly evaluation, and she was punished. “I could not answer two questions of the mullah. He whipped my palms four times. That hurt a lot,” she says. “My palms were dark red, and they were still hurting two hours later.”
Semin still says that apart from suffering, she was also humiliated in front of her peers. “I was very upset and for the next few days, I remembered the palm whipping every moment,” she says.
Another student, Jamshid, 13, also says that he was physically punished by his mullah about 10 days ago. “We were joking with a few of our classmates,” he says. “When the mullah saw he whipped us on our palms five times each.”
Jamshid, who has been attending a local school for three years, says every school day at least one student is physically punished. He does not like going to the local school, but his father forces him to do so.
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