Afghan Woman Who Once Went to School in Disguise Opens Boarding School for Girls

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, who evaded the Taliban to get an education, is creating a boarding school for girls in Afghanistan.

When Shabana Basij-Rasikh was a child, she dressed up like a boy to walk to school in Taliban-held Afghanistan. Now 24, she is once again defying the odds in her country—this time in her drive to develop an internationally accredited boarding school for girls.

Afghanistan has seen vast improvements in education. There are more than 14,000 educational institutions, and a national curriculum has been established after 30 years of conflict.

But education remains a challenge for girls and women. Only 12 percent of Afghan women are literate, and among school-age children, 38 percent (4.2 million children, the majority of them girls) do not have access to schools. Violence, tradition, and poverty all conspire—in different parts of the country—to make education for girls a nearly unattainable goal.

Yet in a country where some families don't allow older girls out of the house, Basij-Rasikh wants parents to send their girls away from home to study. She recently met with National Geographic to talk about her own path to a higher education, how—with the help of grants and donations—she has launched a successful boarding school (for security purposes National Geographic is not revealing the location) and why it makes sense for her troubled country.

You have been named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for this year. What does that mean to you as an educator?

In the beginning when I first got the call, I just couldn't believe it. My first instinct was just to say no, because I thought they [National Geographic] had a misunderstanding. The first thing my head went to was, I don't even know how to swim! And I was thinking maybe they have some sort of exploration that they've invited me to conduct, with people from around the world. I thought, I'm an educator, what does this have to do with me? So I was pretty confused. But then they sent me an email explaining.

It was very humbling to be selected into this class as the society gets repurposed. The idea is to inspire, illuminate, and teach, and I think these three pillars for the organization are so beautiful. This idea that you can be bold in the idea of how you define exploration—it's not just for people who go on expeditions to places where humans haven't gone. But it's talking about how we human beings find solutions to the problems in our world and the different ways we chose to protect our Earth. The solution I'm working on in Afghanistan is a model of a boarding school that helps educate Afghan women. To have that be defined as an exploration is inspiring.

Tell us what led you to start a school, which you call SOLA?

The word sola means "peace" in the Pashtun language, but it's an acronym for School of Leadership, Afghanistan. I was born and raised in Afghanistan and, like many, have had my own challenges in terms of receiving an education as a girl. But after the fall of the Taliban regime, I was selected to come to the U.S. on a State Department-funded exchange program called Youth Exchange and Study (YES).

I went to regular public high school in Wisconsin. I had the opportunity to look at Afghanistan from an outsider's perspective and was amazed at how people talked about it—the words they used to describe Afghanistan.

Which words?

Words that weren't part of my daily experience growing up—or not all of it—like "terrorism." I was aware of the problems while growing up, I knew on some level there was lack of access to education and very basic health care, but I didn't quite understand how enormous those problems were until I traveled to the U.S. I became like an ambassador. In 2005, many people in Wisconsin were curious about Afghanistan, and I was pushed to learn more and put numbers to the problems. It was really overwhelming for me to say that around 90 percent of women in rural areas are illiterate.

I came back to the U.S. to attend college at Middlebury [in Vermont], and I began to realize what privilege I was being exposed to. I have parents who are so committed to education above and beyond anything else in their lives.

I grew very uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the privileges. Why me? How did I get so lucky? What if? What if I was born into that family whose daughter a couple of years younger than me is already married with a few kids? I don't have to look far away to say Afghan women are married at a young age. This idea that access to education is considered a basic human right is hard for me to understand. How do you call it a basic right when millions of millions of girls around the world don't have access to education? Isn't it a privilege from their perspective? These questions compelled me to think of my next steps. Now that I am that lucky Afghan woman, what are my moral obligations? At one point it became very apparent that the best use of my skills and my passion for Afghanistan—and awareness of my privileges—was to become an educator.

Why did you decide to make it a boarding school?

My initial interest was imagining an Afghanistan where all the people get along. That's the most pressing problem in Afghanistan. A boarding school would bring together students from all over Afghanistan, to live to together, to learn to respect one another, and learn about each other's cultures, to learn to celebrate their similarities and appreciate their differences.

Today at SOLA we have students from 14 different provinces, and when they come to SOLA during orientation, they sign an honor code. There is zero tolerance for ethnic discrimination. Whether you are a Hazara or Pashtun or Sunni or Shia, it doesn't matter. You are a SOLA girl, and you are here to be a future leader of Afghanistan.

The girls are 12 to 18. In a lot of developing countries, once girls reach puberty they are taken out of schools. The misunderstanding is that this is because of tradition or cultural practices, but in a lot of areas it's due to a lack of a school. A girl can go through third or fifth grade, but as she grows older, there is no school in place to accommodate her. In some parts of the country, a girl may drop out for security reasons. And in some parts of the country, there are traditional practices where, once girls reach puberty, they don't leave the house. She is either married off or she is the babysitter for younger siblings. She cooks and cleans and irons; all those chores that she shouldn't be doing at that age. If you take that girl from that household and put her in a boarding school, all of a sudden you buy several hours of her day that she can use to focus on herself and her personal development. And that is what is so unique about a boarding school.

Because she's not going home and cooking or doing dishes ...

She's not. She doesn't have to put up with those responsibilities. She can use those hours to learn, become curious, become creative, to focus on herself. She can learn how to ride a bicycle, to skateboard, to rock climb, and to help others who are not as lucky as she is to be studying at SOLA. We are not just interested in giving the students a good education. We celebrate their bodies, when society tells them to be embarrassed about their bodies. We don't tell them to hide and cover because their bodies are developing. We tell them to ride bicycles, skateboard, rock climb, and help others to learn English. One more thing we do in orientation is to have students sign a pledge that they will speak English at all times. How can we choose the language of one group to be the language of all? English equalizes that. After finishing their studies, they can go abroad and then bring their skills and the networks they're exposed to back to Afghanistan.

Nigeria of course has different challenges than Afghanistan, but given the high-profile kidnapping of schoolgirls there, and the security situation in Afghanistan, are you concerned for the safety of your students?

We are keeping a low profile right now. But as we plan to expand, we have to be cautious and accept that unlike other boarding schools in the world, our needs will be slightly different. We have to have security until Afghanistan is ready to accept this idea that girls can live away from their families to receive a good education.

So you have guards?

Yes, we do, and those are the kinds of costs you don't usually associate with a school. But that's the reality, and you can't let reality keep you from doing something to fix the problem. Otherwise we will be just sitting there and nothing will happen. We can't continue to rely on outsiders to come and fix our problems. The best way for Afghanistan to experience sustainable development is for the people who know the problems, but also the opportunities, to come up with creative solutions. Our educational system is broken; it only teaches students to memorize. We need education that encourages critical thinking.

We started the school with four students in 2008. Today we have 35 students, and we've helped 40 get scholarships to boarding schools and universities in five different countries, with scholarships amounting to 7.7 million dollars. The plan is to grow the school to 340 students in the next five years. The reason 340 is key—for what will be the first-ever internationally accredited boarding school in Afghanistan—is that we want to communicate a message that everybody deserves an equal opportunity. We have 34 provinces, and our vision is to have students from all of them. That number should communicate something to people.

What was your education like as a child and how did it help propel you to create SOLA?

I grew up under a regime that considered girls' education a crime. As I was walking to a secret school it did at times feel like I was committing a crime, because that's how it was considered by the government. You could easily be killed if the Taliban were to find out. We'd hear horrible stories about how some neighboring school was discovered, and they beheaded the teacher in front of the students. That fear was present all the time. Even at that young age we knew the risks we were taking every day.

I was lucky my parents accepted that risk. When I ask them now, "How is it that you let me go to school every day knowing that the possibility of my not returning home was very real?" their response is, "For us, it was harder to imagine you growing up uneducated." I feel incredibly lucky to have those kinds of parents. I didn't understand how lucky I was until 2002 [after the fall of the Taliban] and realized that 96 percent of my classmates were six years older than I was because they were just returning to school. It wasn't so much my education in Afghanistan that has led me to do what I do, but it is my parents. It is the risks they've taken and their bold appreciation for education.

When you were going to the secret school, what was it like to get there and back each day?

It took between 30 minutes to an hour to walk there, but we'd take different roads so we wouldn't create a pattern. Sometimes we'd go in the mornings, sometimes in the afternoons. I went to several different secret schools. A lot of times people cover their Korans, so we would just cover our books and make it look like we were carrying the Koran. We'd have the Koran at school and be studying that too, of course, but we were also learning these other subjects the Taliban wouldn't allow.

What are your next steps with your school?

We need to think about accreditation and how to make it sustainable on its own. I think this is a phenomenal model, and I think it can be replicated in a lot of conflict and postconflict countries. Women are naturally peacemakers. They are the ones who raise children and teach values to their kids. To teach those women to be really thinking big, thinking bold, thinking broadly and inclusively is so important.

Does the announced U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2016 affect your work?

Every year is a "decisive year" for Afghanistan. But if you think about it that way then you really lose momentum. Here's my answer to people who ask what will happen to Afghanistan. I say it is a country that is full of potential, possibilities, and hope. More than 70 percent of its population is 25 or younger. It's a young country. Because of these years of war, generations of young Afghans have not lived under tribal structure, so you are opening up this structure for young kids to really think that they deserve to be in leadership positions. For the first time in Afghan history, we are having the transfer of one government to the next, and the fact that this is happening is success. When I was nine years old, I didn't even know how to turn a TV on. Today a nine-year-old Afghan flips through more than 75 privately owned TV channels. We have some of the best freedom of the press in the region. All of this in the past 10 to 12 years. As more Afghans get educated, more of this will be sustainable. That's not to say I don't have concerns. These achievements are beautiful and wonderful but also very fragile. It is all of our responsibility to do something to protect these gains.

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