Joan Smith: Women and children are defying the Taliban

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The Independent Online

The results from Afghanistan are fantastic. I'm not talking about last week's elections, obviously, but the interim results of a survey on the number of Afghan children who are now attending school. Published last month by Unicef, they show a "massive return" of boys and girls to schools around the country, with the number of female pupils going up by more than 90 per cent.

Two-thirds of the country has been surveyed so far – 2,744 schools – and 1.25 million children are getting regular lessons. If the trend is repeated in the remaining provinces, Unicef believes that the number of children in Afghan schools is likely to exceed all expectations.

Thirty per cent of the school population is female, and even in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, girls now make up 10 per cent of the school population. These figures don't surprise me but they are not widely reported, unlike the tragic deaths of the young British servicemen and women who are in Afghanistan partly at least to create circumstances in which civil society can revive.

The education of Afghan children is a crucial part of that process, and that's why it drives the Taliban into a frenzy of murderous rage. Nine months ago, 15 girls were attacked with acid while walking to school in Kandahar, blinding two of them and injuring two others. At the time, Unicef said it had already counted 256 violent school incidents during 2008, resulting in 58 deaths and 46 injuries. That hasn't stopped the country's 27,000 teachers (more than a third of them women) trying to do their job, and it shows that Afghanistan is more than the tribal backwater portrayed in foreign media.

Kabul was once a modern city with thriving schools and universities, and a confident middle class which was prepared to challenge traditional customs. In the Seventies, around 60 per cent of students in Kabul were women, and they wore short skirts next to women from poor rural families in burqas. Last year I talked to the novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and he recalled that his mother was a high school teacher in Kabul. "The struggle of women against traditional forces dates back before the Taliban," he told me, "and there have been many attempts to emancipate women. It's always resisted by the traditionalists. This has a lot of history."

One leader of the struggle was Meena, founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who left university in Kabul in the Seventies to fight for women's rights. She was assassinated in 1987, aged 30, but her organisation is still organising protests – most recently against President Karzai's law allowing Shia men to starve their wives if they refuse sex – and fighting for girls' education.

It's clear from the low turnout on Thursday that many people were too intimidated to vote in the elections, and journalists reported arriving at empty polling stations where officials made unlikely claims that thousands of ballots had been cast. Karzai is claiming to have won a second term for a regime widely seen as corrupt, hopelessly inefficient, soft on drug trafficking and friendly to warlords.

Western governments have made a huge mistake in lionising this absurdly dandyish figure, who reminded me of Colonel Gaddafi when I saw him in London. But the shortcomings of a single round of elections do not invalidate the aspiration towards democracy. Last week's events in Afghanistan demonstrate once again the unpopularity of Islamist hardliners, who can get their way only through threats, bombs and murder.