Victoria Schofield paints a verbal portrait of Shabana Basij-Rasikh, the inspirational President and Co-Founder of SOLA (The Afghan School of Leadership. SOLA believes that educating girls across Afghanistan’s provinces, religious sects and tribal affiliations is the fastest way to increase female participation in political life, and to raise the educational levels of all Afghans. Conceived in 2008 as an English-immersion boarding school for Afghan students, today SOLA has 28 female students from 14 of Afghanistan’s provinces representing all major ethnic backgrounds. Forty-five alums of SOLA have gone on to secondary and tertiary scholarship opportunities at boarding schools around the world.
‘”I SPENT a great chunk of my childhood under the Taliban regime,’ says 25 year-old Shabana Basij-Rasikh. ‘I was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan and lived in Afghanistan throughout the Taliban regime. There were no schools for girls. But I was lucky because my parents made it clear that education was a no.1 priority and they sent me and my sisters to a secret school. I am a product of one of those underground schools.’
Listening to Shabana speak so eloquently, it is hard to believe that she and so many others found something which we in the West take for granted so challenging. But as she reminds us, in a country where only 6 per cent of women have a college degree and 90 per cent of women in rural areas cannot read or write, education for girls is not the norm and the five-year period of Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001 set the clock back immeasurably. ‘Both my parents were the first members of their families to receive an education,’ she explains. ‘When my grandmother sent my father to school she was disowned by her family for ten years, but then he became a role model for her relatives.’ When it came to educating his own children, his progressive approach meant that he did not distinguish between educating girls and boys.
Aged only six when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, Shabana admits that as a child she did not realise the value of education. ‘Many times we would beg our parents to stop sending us to the secret school. We would say what is the point. It is not like we can finish. Why are we risking our lives? But my father would say that education was an extremely important investment, that it is the only thing that could not be taken away. At a young age I did not understand but as I grew older I came to realise the value of what he was telling me.’
Then came ‘9/11’ and the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. ‘For a lot of people in my generation it changed a lot. But first, I couldn’t believe the story. I couldn’t believe people had the capacity to build tall buildings like the Twin Towers. I was shocked how is Afghanistan associated with what had happened in America.’ On a practical level, the end of the Taliban’s control of the country’s administration meant that Shabana could continue her education openly by attending the local public school.
Yet again, the process required a mental adjustment. ‘Under the Taliban I was wearing boys clothes and my mother had cut my hair to make me look like a boy. In 2002 I was wearing uniform – black clothes and white scarf – which indicated that I was a school girl. In school we had different teachers for different subjects whereas at the underground school we had the same teacher for all subjects.’ And whereas the hours for going to public school were regular, she and her sisters used to attend the secret school at different times of the day so that there was never a pattern to their activities. Another ‘shocking’ revelation at public school was that ‘most of my classmates were 6 years older than me. They were returning to school to start their education where they had left off. I had an advantage because I had gone to secret school. So my future was very different. Most of them were worried about having to drop out because it was time for them to get married. Some were coming to school just to learn to read and write. I was in a family where my father said we had to use our education to help others.’
Her next opportunity came when her teachers put her forward for the United States’ State Department Youth Studies program. ‘In 2005 my principal nominated me for a scholarship.’ Having been selected, once again she had her father to thank. ‘People often overlook the role of a very strong father. If it had been a family decision, I would not have gone. My family members were afraid that I would have to convert to Christianity and that I would lose my Afghan culture.’ But her father was adamant that she should go and Shabana became the first person in her family to travel abroad.
Yet again there were surprises. ‘I was completely taken out of my comfort zone when I went to the United States. Growing up during a war we could not take the next day for granted. We always hoped for the future but we never knew what would happen. When my host family said that they were going to go to a certain place on a particular date, I did not believe them. For example, when they said that on 23 September we are going to an amusement park, I could not understand how they could be so sure their plans would work out.’ She was also faced by American ignorance about Afghanistan with questions ranging from women’s rights, healthcare, education, religion ‘even if I had ever met Osama bin Laden in person!’
Having finished high school in Wisconsin, she went on to attend Middlebury College, Vermont. At Middlebury, Shabana was awarded a Davis Peace Prize. She also received the Vermont Campus Compact 2011 Madeleine Kunin Public Service Award for outstanding leadership and service to others. Most importantly, while at Middlebury in 2011 she co-founded SOLA, the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, her experiences both in Afghanistan and in the United States making her realise that ‘the best way I could contribute was to get involved in education. If more opportunities were created for young girls like myself we would see a lot more Afghans who would become the best lawyers and doctors that Afghanistan needs. Education has a real purpose to serve the country and to enable us to be responsible global citizens. The process of empowerment has to be initiated from within.’ Having initially had the objective of wanting to enable girls like herself to be educated abroad and then find jobs back home, her goal quickly expanded to establishing the first (and only) girls boarding school in Afghanistan. Situated in a residential community in Kabul, even today ‘for safety reasons we don’t have a sign outside.’
By ‘localising’ the boarding school model Shabana also believes they can address ‘one of the most pressing national problems, and that is ethnic tension.’ With Afghanistan’s different ethnic groupings, she admits that ethnic discrimination affects not only the political system but also job opportunities. ‘It is a disturbing problem – we are limiting ourselves by human-created categories. The idea of a boarding school is that we would be able to address this problem and bring people from different ethnicities together who could learn to respect each other and see each other as friends, and drop that ethnic lens.’
An additional incentive has been to offer education to students from the provinces ‘where the need for education is today. In most provinces if you are a girl, with a chronic shortage of teachers, ‘finding a school beyond elementary level is very challenging. In a lot of places if a family can afford to send one child to school, then they will send the son. Girls grow up knowing that their brother’s education is more important than theirs. And even if they do go to school they come back to a lot of household responsibilities. To be able to take that young girl from that household and put her in a boarding school you buy several hours in her day when she can focus on herself, creating a safe space for her to be able to grow.’
By promoting SOLA, Shabana also concedes that families need to accept that their daughters will be taken out of their own homes with the possibility of then being placed on scholarships in schools abroad to complete their education to college level. ‘We have had to spend years working out whether people are receptive to the idea. The families we have been working with have been very supportive. In the past 6 years we have sent 45 girls to 7 different countries. In March 2016 we are recruiting a new class of students for 6th grade. Our goal over the next 7 years is to expand in order to be able to take over 300 students. We also want our own campus so we could do a lot more.’ The standard which Shabana has set is also high. ‘Much education in Afghanistan is based on rote learning, memorisation, we have generations of young people who go from being curious human beings, to becoming memorisation machines. We need people in Afghanistan to be able to think creatively, to come up with creative solutions to the problems in Afghanistan. In the past so many years the focus has been on quantity rather than on the quality, without which we cannot have sustainable development.’
Shabana Basij-Rasikh addressed the members of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs in London on 21 Jan. 2016. She is a Global Ambassador for Girl Rising.
For more information see www.sola-afghanistan.org