Thousands of young women living in a part of Pakistan once considered the country's most idyllic tourist destination have been prevented from going to school after an order from Taliban forces which have seized control of much of the area.
Fearful of violent attacks that have already seen the torching of over 180 schools in the Swat Valley, school administrators have announced that more than 900 private schools will remain closed until the security situation improves. Government officials, struggling to organise adequate protection, have appealed to schools to extend their winter holidays until at least March. The future education of around 125,000 young women is uncertain as a result of the order, said to come into effect on January 15.
In an echo of Afghanistan under the Taliban, the campaign against female education is the latest phase of a brutal and swift advance across the valley led by local Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah that has included the beheading of opponents, the closure of barber shops, political assassinations, kidnappings and the destruction of homes belonging to the wealthy.
Earlier this month, militants were believed to be behind attacks on the homes of the Wali of Swat, the benign autocrat who ruled the valley and who has now fled to Islamabad, and Hameedullah Khan, a reporter for the respected Dawn newspaper.
The Taliban have also introduced a parallel legal system where makeshift Sharia courts order lashes and death sentences for those seen to be violating their brand of Islamic law, said Shoukat Saleem, a lawyer.
“Yesterday there was a bombing of a school in Mingora, the main city,” he added. “No one is giving any education. Girls preparing for their matriculation exams in March have had to abandon their education. Unless the government or the Taliban announce that the situation will be ok, no one will take the risk.”
Shoukat Ali Yousafzai, the top civil administrator, said most of the schools were currently closed for winter holidays. “Once they are over, we will give security with the help of the army,” he said.
But in a sign of worsening security in even Mingora, which until recently been beyond the reach of the Taliban, Mr Yousafzai said around 50 corpses had been discovered dumped this month. Some have been found beheaded, others carried a note warning readers not to remove the body before an appointed time.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, a spokesman for the Private Schools Management Association, said: “It will be very difficult to reopen the schools as long as there is no political solution of the problem…The Taliban are now the de facto rulers of Swat.”
The Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) was once widely known as the Switzerland of Pakistan and famed as a destination for honeymooners and other tourists. In the past 18 months the area has increasingly fallen under militant control. Senior army officers claim their remit remains extensive - particularly during the day - but local people say that more than three-quarters of the valley is effectively outside of government control.
The military says the tactics of Taliban fighters have become increasingly brutal in recent months. The number of troops has been boosted in recent months to counter the militants. Maj General Athar Abbas, a senior army spokesman, said: “In Swat the militants have become very ruthless - there are executions and beheadings. This is the fear and terror they want to create on the part of the public,” he said.
But Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman, said they would not allow any girls' schools to operate until the army withdrew from the valley and Sharia Law was imposed. He told the Associated Press: “These schools are being run under a system introduced by the British and promote obscenity and vulgarity in society.”