The girls begin appearing at about seven in the morning. Seen from a distance, they make up thin blue lines snaking across the barren tan mountainside along narrow trails traced in the dirt. They converge from several directions on the little school in the bottom of the valley.
Many of the girls, wearing powder-blue school uniforms and white head scarves and ranging in age from 7 to 18, have already been walking for an hour or more by the time they arrive at the school. There are smaller groups of boys too, mostly out of uniform, walking apart from the girls.
By 7:45, they are all gathered for assembly in the yard of the Rustam School, in a remote corner of Afghanistan's Yakawlang District. It is the area's only high school and serves students in 1st through 12th grade. It has an enrollment of 330 girls and 146 boys--astonishing in a country where normally only a third of girls attend school.
The principal, Mohammad Sadiq Nasiri, 49, gives his daily pep talk: Getting into a university is going to be harder than ever this year, so they are going to have to do better than ever.
Rustam may seem an unlikely place to encourage collegiate dreams. With seven crude stone classrooms, supplemented by six big tents, there are so many students that school is divided into separate morning and afternoon sessions only four hours long.
There is no electricity, heat, computers, or copy machines. Many school materials are written out in longhand by teachers. Foreign aid once helped but has dried up. One teacher says she has fewer books than students.
Only 5 percent of the students have parents who can read and write, Nasiri says. Most are the children of subsistence farmers. Yet Rustam's 2017 graduating class saw 60 of 65 graduates accepted to Afghanistan's public universities, a 92 percent college entrance rate. Two-thirds of those accepted were girls.
Unlike most Afghan schools, Rustam mixes boys and girls in its classrooms. "Men and women are equal," the principal says. "They have the same brains and the same bodies."
He adds, "We tell these boys and girls, there is no difference between you guys, and you will all be together when you go to college, so you need to learn how to respect one another."
40 Years of War
The school is an oasis of calm and hope in a country that has essentially been at war for 40 years. The fighting and instability began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (see Key Dates, below). The Taliban, an extremist group with a very rigid interpretation of how Islam should be practiced, took control in 1996.
Life under the Taliban was hard. They persecuted the country's few religious minorities. They banned music and TV. They forbade men from wearing neckties and required them to grow beards. But it was women who fared the worst. Girls older than 8 were prohibited from going to school. Women were barred from most jobs and told they must wear a burqa, a head-to-toe covering, when they left their houses.
Although swiftly driven from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001, the Taliban have proved to be an adept guerrilla insurgency, and U.S. troops are still fighting them, even as peace negotiations have recently taken place (see "America's Longest War," facing page). Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid to rebuild the country, much of Afghanistan's infrastructure-including its education system--is still in tatters.
Rustam School is an exception. One day late in the spring term, Badan Joya, 1 of 5 female teachers among the school's 12, is teaching a fourth-grade math class in one of the overflow tents. A piece of cardboard painted black serves as a chalkboard, with simple algebra formulas scribbled on it. She asks her students, nearly all girls, to name their favorite subject. They reply in unison: "Math."
That isn't surprising at Rustam; 40 percent of questions on the college entrance exams cover mathematics, more than any other subject. And the girls excel.
The top student in llth-grade math, based on test scores, is Shahrbano Hakimi, 17. She's also the top student in her computer class, where, on that recent day, the girls were studying the Windows operating system--from books. Only 1 of the 60 students in the class has a computer at home.
"The thing I wish for most in the world," Shahrbano says, "is a laptop."
A Passion for Education
The local passion for education, especially among girls, is a reaction to the Taliban era, when it was banned, their teachers say. The fourth-grade math teacher, Joya, who is 28, didn't begin school herself until the Taliban fell when she was 11. Until then, she couldn't read or write, and her only schooling had been sewing class.
"I had to start from zero," she says. "We tell them about the Taliban and what they did to us, and say, 'You have an...