Sporting or extra-curricular activities have become a new Taliban-imposed taboo for tribal students after militants targeted two schools in Pakistan's Khyber tribal region for letting students, including girls, compete in sports or cultural events.
"The Taliban […] are now looking for soft targets after being frustrated by continuous successes in military operations in different parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA]," Fazal Manan, director of education in FATA, told Central Asia Online.
"Girls' education is also considered un-Islamic by these self-proclaimed champions of the religion of Islam […] They have now started targeting schools where students, particularly girls, had participated in any extra-curricular activities," Manan said.
Militants have destroyed almost 450 schools in the tribal regions, he said.
The Taliban destroyed two schools in Jamrud and Landi Kotal tehsils of Khyber Agency on December 18th and December 22nd. The attacks came after girls attending a Jamrud school competed in a sporting gala and after boys at a Landi Kotal private school organised a cultural show to mark the end of their school year. The regional directorate of sports in Peshawar administered both events.
Abdullah Ezaam Brigade, an auxiliary of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in Khyber Agency, claimed responsibility for both bombings and warned of more such attacks if students, particularly girls, continued such activities.
FATA Director of Sports Faisal Jameel, however, is defiant and promises more such sporting contests in the future to attract tribal girls to healthy activities.
"Women comprise 50% of our population, and we cannot deny them their basic human rights," he said while expressing his satisfaction over the performance by FATA girls in the week-long sporting gala his directorate held in Peshawar in early December.
"I am of the firm belief that tribal girls could excel in sports provided they are imparted proper training and given facilities," he said.
Students in Jamrud also exhibited their resolve by showing up in large numbers only one day after their school was bombed.
Bushra, a 7th-grader in Jamrud, said her parents and teachers supported her and she would continue her studies and extra-curricular activities.
"It was an honour for our school since two of our students won medals in the long jump and table tennis competition," said Hashmat Begum, the school principal.
The respective champions were ninth-grader Naheed Khan and 10th-grader Rekhmeena. A fifth-grader won a prize for being the youngest athlete in the contest.
The school administration has the approval of all the participating athletes' parents, Hashmat said. Extra-curricular activities not only keep students healthy but also strengthen their commitment to their studies, she said.
"Our intention is to engage the FATA youth in more healthy and productive activities so that they are protected from falling into the dangerous hands of extremist elements," said Jameel.
"We fully abide by our religious obligations and girls observe purdah [seclusion]," she said, adding the girls competed inside a sporting complex where male spectators and even male trainers could not enter.
Azra Khan, who is in charge of the Jamrud school's health and physical education department, said she worked very hard to prepare the girls for the sporting gala.
Her students have great potential, she said, pledging to keep training them.
Teachers and parents were similarly determined in Landi Kotal.
"I wonder what was so wrong in celebrating their academic achievements and organising a cultural show without music by our students at the end of their academic year," said Mujeeb ur Rehman, a teacher at the Bacha Khan public school in Landi Kotal.
"Students have every right to arrange such healthy activities, which are a part and parcel of their curriculum," he insisted, adding that many parents and local government officials also attended the gathering and lauded the performance of young students.
Reacting sharply to Taliban school bombings and bans on sports, parents in Jamrud and Landi Kotal said they had no objection to their children's participation in such activities.
Naheed's father, Khalil Khan, said his whole family was proud of her and expressed his support for her in the face of extremist threats.
"It is time that we jointly stand up against elements who are bent upon destroying the future builders of our region and firmly support our children," Khan said.
Security, though, remained a concern for some teachers and parents. "The local political administration should have provided us with security after receiving of anonymous calls by some unscrupulous elements before the bombing of the school," Hashmat said.
Although most of the students are too young to understand the dangers linked to their extra-curricular activities, some female teachers were reluctant to work after the December 18th incident, she said.
Every possible protection will be provided to teachers and the local government has assured them too of full security, Manan said.