KABUL, Afghanistan – Aziz Royesh opens the doors to Marefat High School every morning with one eye gazing toward his country’s future -- and the other looking warily over his shoulder.
One morning three months ago, he says, he was greeted at the school in West Kabul not by students -- but by an angry mob of nearly 40 men and boys.
“They started stoning the windows and the door of the school,” Royesh says. “They were shouting … they want Aziz, and we want to kill him, and we will execute him.”
The Afghan National Police arrived, but the crowd continued shouting death threats at him, into the evening.
Royesh's "crime"? He lets girls attend the same school as boys.
When Royesh opened the Marefat School in Pakistan, his native Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, who denied basic rights to women and girls under their strict interpretation of Islam.
But when the Taliban government fell in 2001, Royesh moved the school to his homeland. Now Marefat has 2,550 students, from Kindergarten through 12th grade -- and about 40 percent of them are girls.
“If we do not help the girls to get free, we will not help the men, or the male part of the community, to get free,” Royesh says. “If you educate the girls…it means you have helped society to get rid of all the barriers they put around themselves.”
But that philosophy is a hard sell in Afghanistan.
In 2003, Royesh says, Marefat became the target of a smear campaign in local Shiite mosques and educational centers. The school's teachers were accused of preaching Christianity, communism, Judaism and secularism – all of which are illegal under Afghan law.
Last year the smears spread further, over the airwaves of a television channel set up by Mohammad Asif Mohseni, the Shiite cleric who drafted the controversial law that allowed marital rape in Afghanistan.
Royesh opposed the law, and he denounced it forcefully in a BBC interview. Two days later, that angry mob appeared at Marefat's front door.
The school was closed the next day, but it reopened the day after that -- with police officers standing guard.
Royesh says the fear-mongering lasted about a week and a half. He says a letter left on doorsteps throughout the community threatened that the girls would be burned with acid if they did not trade in their school uniforms for traditional Islamic clothing. For a few days, Royesh says, students were harassed on buses and side streets.
A 12-year-old boy named Ali remembers being harassed as he went to school by a bus cleaner who called him “a puppy of a Christian” and slapped him on the face.
A 17-year-old girl named Fatima says her relatives accompanied her to school after a group of men told her she’d be kidnapped or killed if she did not abandon her education.
These days, Afghan National Police stop by the school regularly to check on security. The threats continue, but they are focused largely on Royesh himself – not on students. Still, he does not have guards, and he chooses to travel freely.
“When a people are not introduced to modern norms of life, how can they bring a change to themselves?” he asks. “Otherwise, every day, we have the possibility of the Taliban-type movements to return back to Afghanistan.”
The impact of education is clear in the eyes of the students at the school. Fourteen-year-old Fatima Jafari returned with her family from Iran two years ago to study here. Already, she presents a poise that is hard to find in an American teenager, much less an Afghan girl.
“They want to make us to be brave, to participate in every program," Fatima says in halting English. "Our teachers want that we should be president, not only a lady that works only in a home."
“It is our responsibility to get an education,” adds Masooda Kasami, age 14. “We should make the situation better. I should be a servant for my people.”
Words like those make Royesh confident in his mission.
“When the people are illiterate, when they are not aware of their rights, when they are not aware of their responsibilities, then you have despotic rulers," he says.
"The civic education that we have inside the school – this is the main cause that we feel is very important for the future of Afghanistan.….This is something which can lead Afghanistan to a better life.”