DOUENTZA, Mali – Radical Islamists who control northern Mali are reopening some schools, though girls now must wear veils and are being seated separately in the back or coming at a different time altogether.
The separation of boys and girls in the classroom is the latest example of how the Islamists are implementing their strict interpretation of Islam in the vast north where al-Qaida-linked militants roam.
The town of Douentza fell to the Islamists during the months when school was out, and upon returning 13-year-old Techerif Toure had to take her place at the back of the room behind her male classmates. Still, she was eager to start the new year this week.
"Having the boys in the front and the girls in the back matters little. The important thing is to study," she said from her seat in the back row by the blackboard, her head covered in a plain black veil.
Her male classmate Madou Maiga said he liked the new arrangement because "the girls talk too much and that keeps us from concentrating on our studies."
Their teacher Toure Zala Baba said she is only following orders from the Islamists who now run Douentza, located just 108 miles from the government-controlled commercial hub of Mopti.
"Before were were colonized by the French who left behind their system of mixed classes," she said. "Today we are colonized by the Islamists and we apply their method."
Douentza students are among the lucky ones, as many schools in the north of Mali haven't reopened following summer vacation.
The Islamists began strengthening their grip on the region as large as France after mutinous soldiers overthrew the country's democratically elected president in March not long before he was due to stand down anyway.
The Islamists have imposed curfews and dress codes on women, and publicly whipped those who flout the regulations. In recent months, they've also amputated the limbs of at least eight suspected thieves and stoned to death a couple accused of adultery.
The political instability and fighting this year has forced nearly half a million Malians from their homes, including desperately needed teachers. Schools remain closed throughout the city of Kidal and many are also still shuttered in Timbuktu. Those who have returned to school there are attending class separately from classmates of the opposite sex.
So far students between the ages of 7 and 12 in Gao have returned to school as normal. However a teacher in Gao, Hamadada Toure, said "I have fear that when the Islamists reopen the schools for the older pupils they are going to separate the boys and the girls."