Afghan activist Shabana Basij-Rasikh strengthens women's education

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 | 11:26 p.m. CDT; updated 2:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 24, 2013

*This article has been updated to include Missouri Military Academy as a co-host of the event.

COLUMBIA — Shabana Basij-Rasikh was 6 when the Taliban captured her home city of Kabul, Afghanistan, and instituted its regime of fundamentalist Islamic law. Under this system, women were not allowed to work outside the home, leave the house without a male relative or receive any kind of education.

The transition was difficult for her siblings, but Shabana had barely known anything else.

"In a very strange way, it was a normal life," she said.

With the encouragement of their parents, Basij-Rasikh and her sisters spent the Taliban's five-year regime attending secret lessons held in the homes of other Afghan citizens.

Students at Basij-Rasikh's "school" would enter and leave the building one at a time, in 10-minute increments, to avoid attracting attention. The teachers' two brothers sat outside during lessons to monitor the neighborhood for any Taliban presence; their mother, working in the garden, kept an eye on the roads.

They all knew that the penalty for being caught was death. 

Basij-Rasikh spoke at Stephens College on Wednesday night, filling up the rows of chairs set up in the Kimball Ballroom on campus. *Missouri Military Academy was a co-host of the event. During the hour and a half that she spoke, she talked about the role education has played in her own life and her efforts as an adult to expand Afghan women's education.

"There were times, under the Taliban regime, when I would get so frustrated and so scared, wondering every single moment 'What if a Talib stops me on my way to school and sees the books in my bag? What if he finds my school and kills my teacher or kills my parents?'" Basij-Rasikh said.

She confronted her parents, asking them why she had to risk so many lives to attend school when it was illegal for her to attend college or work in a professional field.

"I asked them, 'What is the point?'" she said. "And they told me: 'You can lose everything in your life. You can be forced to leave your house, your money can be stolen from you. Every possession you have can be taken one way or another. The one thing that can never be taken from you is your education.'

"I am so lucky to have had parents who believed in that."

When the Taliban fell, Basij-Rasikh was allowed to legally attend school for the first time in her life. As a student at Maryam High School in Kabul, she participated in an exchange program to the U.S.

Although she had grown up with an acute awareness of the Taliban's power to deprive women of education, it was not until she began answering American classmates' questions about her country that she realized how pervasive the problem was.

"Putting it in terms of statistics really shocked me," she said. "'Ninety percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Only 6 percent have a college degree.' Before I would say these numbers, I would pause to think: 'Why me? Why am I part of the 10 percent who can read? How did I get so lucky?' And then, 'What can I do to help others?' I realized that, for me to fulfill my dreams and desires for Afghanistan, I would have to become an educator."

Basij-Rasikh co-founded the School of Leadership, Afghanistan as a student at Middlebury College in 2008. The organization's mission is to provide Afghan girls with an internationally-focused education that prepares them to study abroad and bring their skills back to Afghanistan. 

SOLA, the organization's acronym, is also the Pashton word for "peace." Basij-Rasikh said one of her primary goals as the school's president, aside from providing a well-rounded education to Afghan girls, has been to help her students understand one another across the ethnic boundaries that frequently shape Afghan politics.

SOLA students sign an honor code on their first day, promising to listen to all of their classmates and work together with them throughout the year. To prevent giving one linguistic group an advantage in the classroom, SOLA students are required to speak English at all times while they are in school.

SOLA currently consists of 27 students from across Afghanistan, Basij-Rasikh said, many of whom are the first in their immediate family to receive formal education. Over the course of the next five years, she hopes to expand the program and gain accreditation to take on as many as 350 students at one time. In the meantime, she plans to continue speaking in the U.S. to draw attention to SOLA's mission.

Annette Digby, vice president of academic affairs at Stephens, said that when the opportunity to host Basij-Rasikh presented itself, she did not hesitate to accept.  

"At Stephens, we are committed to educating and preparing women to be leaders — not only empowered leaders, but leaders who empower others," she said. 

Ultimately, Basij-Rasikh's message was a call to action. Paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson, she said: "The biggest sin in the world is to have knowledge, to have skills that could help another person, and not share them. If you have the privilege of education, you have the moral obligation to help other people with the gift you have been given."

She encouraged audience members not to wait to take action.

"You don't have to be out of college and have a job, and that's your time to change the world," she said. "You can do it at any time in your life. You just have to have the passion for it and follow that no matter what."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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