Shabana Basij-Rasikh talks to Asmita Sarkar about the importance and difficulties of opening private boarding school for girls in Afghanistan.
Her parents knew the dangers of sending their daughters, dressed as boys, to school under the rule of Taliban and yet they did it. Back then, Shabana Basij-Rasikh thought them cruel but years later when she was able to go to school openly and without fear she realised how crucial those hours spent in a secret school were. She carries the lesson her parents inculcated in her even today and that gave birth to the idea of School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), a private boarding school for girls, teaching them how to become future leaders.
What was the turning point of your life because of which you set on the current course of educating women?
I spent six years studying in secret during the Taliban years. When the regime was driven out in 2001, girls could go back to school openly but the Taliban had destroyed all student records for girls, so before any of us could return to class, we had to take a placement exam to determine which grade we should enter.
The day we got our exam results back is the day that changed the course of my life. I’d been in the equivalent of 1st grade when the Taliban came and when I got my scores back, I saw that I was going to be placed in the 7th grade but all my fellow 7th graders were six years older than me.
Do you see the significance? I’d been able to study for six years under the Taliban, but these girls hadn’t. They’d been in the 7th grade when the Taliban came, and now, six years later, they were going right back into 7th grade. They hadn’t had the opportunities that I had. I felt so fortunate, so lucky but maybe more than anything, I felt a sense of duty. I felt that I needed to find a way to ensure that girls wouldn’t ever be deprived of the chance to study. It was still several years before I founded SOLA…but certainly, the seeds of our school were planted on that day.
As a child, were you ever scared of the consequences if you were caught dressed like a boy?
Oh yes. Absolutely. My sister and I would vary our routes so no one would get suspicious seeing us every day, and we’d sometimes spend up to an hour walking to and from school. I remember we’d come home in tears some evenings. We’d beg our parents not to make us go back to school the next day; we’d say we were scared and didn’t want to go. They never listened.
People tell me, sometimes, that they think my sister and I were very brave for doing what we did during those years. I’m going to tell you exactly what I tell those people: I don’t think we were brave. The brave ones were my parents. At the time, of course, I thought my parents were so cruel, but imagine what it would be like to send your daughters to a secret school every day, never knowing when they’d come home or even if they’d come home. But you do it anyway, because you know that education will be the key to a better life for them. My parents taught me to believe in the transformative power of education; quite simply, there would be no SOLA without them.
What challenges did you face when setting up SOLA?
I created SOLA a decade ago while I was still a college student. It’s been my life’s work, and the challenges we faced at that time are in some ways still with us.
Certainly, back in 2008, our chief challenge was convincing our various stakeholders that SOLA, as an educational model, could work: keep in mind that there was no precedent in my country for a private boarding school for girls. We had to convince politicians that our model was effective and scalable, we had to convince donors that we could provide our students an education like none other in Afghanistan and maybe most importantly, we had to convince mothers and fathers that their daughters would be safe with us.
Ten years later, we’ve proven the power of the school’s model. It’s effective. It works and other organisations within Afghanistan are adapting our model to their own programmes. But there are times even now when I go to meetings with high-level officials in Afghanistan who tell me that the school is a remarkable accomplishment and then they tell me it’s a shame I’m wasting it on girls. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet.
What are your future plans for SOLA?
We’re entering a very exciting period of growth where we intend to more than double the size of our student body. We have 62 girls in grades six to eight right now, representing 23 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Our model is to add a new sixth grade class annually. We’re in the middle of recruiting 2019’s class right now — so that by the year 2022, we’ll have roughly 175 girls in grades six to 12, ideally representing all 34 provinces. Parallel with this expansion, we’re moving forward with plans to build a new, secure campus in Kabul where our students can learn safely and grow to become Afghanistan’s new generation of female leaders.
How can Asia go forward in giving a safe and nurturing environment to its girls?
I think the first step is one that sounds quite easy but is in fact quite difficult: we need to make clear that everyone benefits when girls are given a safe environment in which to learn and grow.
I feel that many people look at girls’ education purely as a women’s issue and I don’t think that’s the correct view. Girls’ education impacts women and girls certainly, but it’s profoundly significant in men’s lives as well. Educated girls bear fewer and healthier children, earn higher wages, and direct the majority of their earnings back into their families — there are enormous societal and economic benefits to these facts, and these are benefits that all of society’s members can share. There are other benefits that cross all national borders: recently, an international consortium of climate scientists and policymakers ranked ‘educating girls’ as the sixth most effective means of reversing climate change, even more effective than rooftop solar panels or electric cars.
More than 25 per cent of Indian girls are married before they turn 18; that number is 33 per cent in Afghanistan, and maybe even higher. Those are remarkable statistics, and ones that should give us pause. Girls who marry at a young age, and who have children at a young age, are extremely unlikely to complete their education, which means that their societies lose out on the extraordinary benefits created by educated women. We can start to change things when we help men realise how important they are in this discussion, and how much their lives will improve when they support and encourage the women and girls in their lives to never stop studying.
(The educationist will speak at the 10th edition of TEDxGateway on December 2 at the DOME@NSCI Mumbai)
Writer: Asmita Sarkar
Courtesy: The Pioneer