Some time after the Taliban’s first fall, when National Geographic Explorer Shabana Basij-Rasikh was eleven years old, she was taking a school placement test in Kabul. According to official records, Basij-Rasikh, like every girl in Afghanistan at the time, had not attended school for the last five years–unless it was done in secret.
It was 2001, and Basij-Rasikh looked around at her classmates. The girls were five to six years her senior, and most would have to make up for lost time, since Taliban-installed authorities had declared girls’ education illegal.
“It was in that moment I fully realized what my parents had done for me, what they risked for me,” she recalls, referring to the tough decision every daughters’ family faced at the time: obey the order that robbed their children of an education, or risk their lives for it. Her parents chose the latter.
Basij-Rasikh took her education underground. She disguised herself as a young boy, chaperoned by her older sister, and the pair commuted to secret schools. They carried their books in unsuspecting shopping bags, and varied their walking routes to avoid even the appearance of a pattern that could draw suspicion. In the eyes of the Taliban these schools are illegal. They often operate out of basements, living rooms and bedrooms, with educators and students willing to risk it all.
In war, everything could be taken away in an instant. Basij-Rasikh’s father, the first to be educated in the family, often reminded his daughters of this fact.
“And then, he’d point to his head and say, ‘the one thing that can’t ever be taken away is here. It’s the most important investment in your life,’” Basij-Rasikh remembers. She never gave up on her education, and turned to investing in the new generation of girls on their quest to learn.
“I’ve said it many times, but it’s worth repeating: the secret to a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan is no secret at all. It’s educated girls.”
In 2008, Basij-Rasikh co-founded the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), a safe place for girls to attend a school in hopes of shielding them from the threats that loomed over her own future.
Her remarkable story eventually led her to earn a master’s from Oxford, and honorary doctorates from multiple universities. But, Basij-Rasikh says, her story alone should not be special.
“The ideal future is one in which educating Afghan girls isn’t seen as exceptional or extraordinary,” she stresses. “The future I want is one in which Afghan girls go to school, receive an education, and it’s utterly and entirely normal. That’s what I’m working on.”
Basij-Rasikh, who is this year’s 2023 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year, is one of the six percent of Afghan women to have a college diploma. She studied at Vermont’s Middlebury college through an exchange program, where she started SOLA while earning her degree in International Studies and Women & Gender Studies. She later completed her master’s in public policy at Oxford, and eventually returned to Afghanistan.
SOLA, which translates to “peace” in the Pashtun language, is Afghanistan’s only all-girls boarding school. Since the Taliban’s second seizure of the country in 2021, school for Afghan girls beyond the sixth grade is forbidden. When girls education was banned again, Basij-Rasikh destroyed any trace of SOLA’s records and evacuated Afghanistan to plant the school in Rwanda. She took every student, along with many staff and their family members, with her.
Afghanistan is the only country in the world that prohibits education beyond the primary level for women and girls. Between 2001 and 2018, the number of girls enrolled in primary school increased from nearly zero, to 2.5 million according to UN estimates. Today, the number of school-aged Afghan girls out of school hovers around 80 percent.
More than 3,000 miles away in Rwanda, the picture is different. No fleeing, no hiding, giving SOLA in exile an opportunity to continue educating and homing Afghan girls.
Sometimes, Shabana says, normalcy is even palpable.
The students come from nearly every province, and represent every ethnic group in Afghanistan. These girls will not have to dress as boys.
They start the day with movements; swimming, tennis and jogging are part of a variety of exercises and sport options at SOLA. Then, they’ll come together for a “jirga,” a traditional Afghan assembly encouraging democracy and leadership, run entirely by the students themselves. Of course, a traditional curriculum is part of their experience too. There’s also a student-run store meant to encourage financial literacy and the girls are invited to share the high points of their day, from completing science projects, to positive conversations they have with faculty.
A student once shared one such highlight as the moment she finished reading the student handbook with a classmate. Anywhere else, this may sound like anything but a high point, Basij-Rasikh acknowledges, but it’s telling of what the opportunity means to the girls.
The seven-year program shepherds its students from middle to adult school and is designed to empower young girls and women to become responsible Afghan, global citizens. Even if they’re growing up in Rwanda, SOLA helps them nurture a connection to Afghanistan, and helps students understand why they aren’t able to return home. The goal, Basij-Rasikh says, is to prepare young girls for universities all over the world, and subsequently, their young professional lives.
“Central to all of this would be the Afghan-centric approach, which is ensuring that these girls learn Dari and Pashto,” Basij-Rasikh says, as well as Islamic studies and Afghan history. “All of this being core to their becoming future leaders of Afghanistan.”
She envisions SOLA as a stepping stone for women and girls who will spearhead the education system when they return to home someday.
“We certainly hope that as they grow into young, professional women who always carry a strong sense of gratitude for the opportunities that they have, they also translate that into serving others,” Basij-Rasikh says. It’s part of cultivating a sisterhood in a world of dwindling options for Afghan women to excel.
Some SOLA alumni are paying it forward by mentoring new students through the process of integrating into a new country. Others come back to SOLA to assist with the admissions process. Each girl’s application can be a stark reminder of Afghanistan’s reality. Basij-Rasikh acknowledges that for the graduate volunteers it can be painful — but they do it anyway.
“I’m not alone in imagining a different Afghanistan,” she explains. As she implores the world to “not look away” from the nation, she finds hope in existing support.
“There are many Afghan women and men like me, young and old. There are so many of us working to create a new nation for all Afghans, and we will not be deterred.”
Soon, an official SOLA campus will be under construction in Rwanda. Until students can return to Afghanistan, 200 or so girls are expected to be housed and educated there over the next few years. Basij-Rasikh believes they will become the new wave of Afghan leadership. And when they arrive at their proverbial podiums, it’s important to not romanticize their stories.
Their resilience, however admirable, was born out of desperation. And when the burden is tough, SOLA will be there to support them, now, and through their future.
“SOLA isn’t just a boarding school. SOLA is a movement,” Basij-Rasikh says. “It’s a movement of Afghan women who I know will be at the forefront of nation building when the time is right.”
In recognition of her expansive and important work educating Afghan women and girls, National Geographic Explorer Shabana Basij-Rasikh is the 2023 recipient of the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Award.
ABOUT THE WRITER
For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.