Islamabad - When Malala Yousafzai and her friends left their school in Pakistan's restive Swat district last week, they were not sure whether they would ever be able to return.
The teenagers are among 120,000 girls whose future hangs in the balance as hundreds of schools and colleges in the scenic valley ceased to function Friday, one day after the deadline given by the Taliban for a complete ban on female education.
"We sat there in our classroom and wept in chorus. Our dreams were shattered and there was no one to help us," said 14-year-old Malala, who wanted to become a pilot. "I had thought I was destined for the stars but they are pushing me to the caves."
Contempt for female education has been a basic tenet of extreme ideology of Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric who is waging an armed campaign since 2007 to impose Taliban-style rule in Swat, formerly a popular tourist destination.
The revolt has taken the lives of hundreds of people, including dozens of security personnel.
Fazlullah's followers bombed or torched more than 170 schools, most of them for girls, over the last year and a half, depriving over 20,000 students of their basic right to education. But late December they put the final nail in the coffin.
In his daily broadcast on a pirated FM frequency, Fazlullah's deputy Shah Dauran set a January 15 deadline to shut all the schools, saying they promoted Western values and a culture of obscenity.
He warned educators of dire consequences if any girl was seen attending a school and ordered school van drivers to stop transporting girls. The Taliban later softened their stance and allowed girls' education only up to fourth grade.
With little trust in thousands of government troops, who have so far been unable to quell the Taliban rebellion despite months of a fierce campaign, Private Schools' Management Association Swat closed some 361 institutions, including 20 girls' colleges, across the district.
"The writ of the state does not exist in Swat. Security forces are confined to their camps and posts, how would they protect us? We cannot risk the lives of thousands of girl students by defying the Taliban deadline," association head Khurshid Khan told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa by telephone.
"Almost half of the girl students in my school and college stopped attending as the deadline drew closer, while the rest would attend the school in plain clothes so that Taliban do not identify them as students as they walk through the streets," he added.
According to Khan, the English-medium private schools will not be re-opened until and unless peace is fully restored.
The decision would affect 40,000 girls, and leave more than 2,500 female teachers jobless. In addition, most of the 84,248 girls are unlikely to attend state-run schools when they reopen in March after winter vacations, said a report in the English-language daily The News.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman condemned Taliban threats and vowed to provide proper security to all the girls' schools. But for Malala's father, Hameed Yousafzai, the minister's promise was as false as Taliban's narrowly interpreted Islam.
"I don't trust them. I am trying to sell out my property. As soon as I get some money, I will shift my family to some safer place where my daughter can continue her education," he said.
"Even if the schools are re-opened I am not going to educate her in this hell. I do not want her to grow up hearing blasts every night and seeing beheaded bodies lying on the streets every morning," Yousafzai added. (dpa)