The Taliban are gone but Afghan women still learn to read and write in secret classrooms

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Off a dirty backstreet in a far-flung suburb of Kabul, past a washing line of ragged clothes and up a dingy stairwell, is a carefully hidden upstairs room.

Inside, teenage girls in headscarves sit crosslegged on the floor, faces twisted in concentration, doing something once strictly forbidden for female Afghans; learning to read and write.

Under the Taliban, an underground network of secret schools taught a rudimentary education at great risk to teachers and students. In the democratic new Afghanistan, schools for girls are still operating - still in secret.

"There is no signboard in the street though most of the neighbours know what is going on here," said Faryal Benish of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (Rawa).

"If the fundamentalists found out they would attack us. And the parents know it's a school but if they knew it was us teaching their girls, they might not let them come to lessons."

Rawa enjoyed brief fame in the West after 11 September as a group of doughty feminists who defied the Taliban. They taught girls banned from schools. They helped widows barred from working. They also tried to tell the world about the nightmare Afghan women had fallen into, smuggling out a horrifying film shot surreptitiously of a woman being executed in Kabul's sports stadium.

Yet. more than three years after the Taliban's fall. the women of Rawa still dare not emerge in public in Kabul. Members believe they are still in so much danger from their enemies that they have not even opened an office in the capital.

"We can be killed easily if we carry out our activities in public," said a Rawa organiser, Neelab Ismat, "It is better than the Taliban days of course. But we can only work underground, even now."

The secret schools - there are 50 in the capital, teaching hundreds of girls and women - no longer run the terrible risks they once did. But the threat from Islamic hardliners still requires discretion.

Some girls attend Rawa's literacy classes because their fathers have banned them from government schools.

"They are very backward, narrow-minded people," said Faryal, an 18-year-old student and Rawa member. "They think girls are just for washing the clothes and sitting in the house."

Most of the pupils in the Laila (Tulip) school in the north of the city attend as an alternative to government schools. Their parents banned them from making the journey to and from the state school because security is still bad in their part of the city. Parents fear their daughters will be kidnapped on the way to or from school - the girls attending the Tulip school all live within a couple of streets of the classroom.

The teacher, Rahela, started lessons seven years ago. "I would like to teach in a government school and perhaps when security conditions are better I will do that," she said.

"But God knows when that will be. We still haven't seen democracy in our land."

In the Taliban days, her pupils sometimes had to hurriedly hide their books under their burkhas when suspicious police poked their noses in. Rahela always told police she was running a handicraft class.

Now, about a dozen girls between the ages of 10 and 19 learn together for an hour every morning in the cosy room, kept warm against the January cold by a wood-burning stove. On dark days, a single bulb provides light - powered by a car battery.

In a corner, a fat baby boy slept in a cot, a brother being looked after by a 12-year-old pupil. Older brothers started arriving at the lesson's end to escort their sisters back through the streets.

Thirteen-year-old Nargis has learnt to read in the past three years and wants to be a doctor.

"My father won't let me go to the government school," she said. "But I like it here and I've learned a lot." The network of schools are now the main activity of Rawa but underground meetings and campaigns are still organised by the 2,000 members in Afghanistan, derided as Communists by their enemies.

They tried to distribute copies of their magazine - Woman's Message - but men in uniform threatened shopkeepers not to stock it. A newspaper in Kabul linked to a warlord described them as "dangerous" adding; "they must be finished".

Their founder, Meena, was assassinated by a fundamentalist warlord in the 1980s and knowledge of the risks they run are never far from the thoughts of members. Ms Ismat said: "We hold meetings but they are not public. We must be very careful who we tell, and who we let into our organisation." Even student members at the university don't tell their friends they have joined.

Rawa doesn't like President Hamid Karzai - "too close to the warlords" - and hates George Bush. "He is a hypocrite, using the pain of Afghanistan's women for propaganda," said Ms Ismat.

The appointment of three new women ministers to the Afghan cabinet last month was dismissed as window-dressing of a government dominated by conservative old men, many with fundamentalist leanings.

Ms Ismat said: "We saw in the election many women who were proud to vote, but we do not think this new government will help women much.

"Hospitals for women are terrible, commanders can still force girls into marriage, and there are hardly any jobs for women. Unfortunately we are not hopeful about the future of Afghanistan. There are some open-minded men here, but most are still very backward."