This is Part I in our series The Longest War.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh is the founder of the first and only boarding school for girls in Afghanistan.
“I'm a product of the bravery of [Afghan women]," she says. "I sneaked into somebody's house to study under the Taliban regime because a woman chose to open her house to educate young girls when it was considered a crime."
Shabana says much has changed for her and all Afghan women over the past 20 years.
“When Afghanistan gets to a point where young girls don't have to feel especially grateful or unique or different because they have received an education ... that's when Afghanistan will have achieved the kind of progress that can never be reversed.”
But now, that future is in jeopardy.
In the first episode of our series 'The Longest War,' we hear her story, and the future of Afghan women.
Fanoos Basir, formerly on the Afghan national women’s soccer team. She's currently in a refugee camp in France.
On the founding of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: "Prior to Middlebury College, when I first came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student, I was 15. It was the very first time in my life where I experienced what it was like to live in a society. Where girls didn't have this fear of losing the opportunity to study. Where they never, ever thought about the possibility of a threat to their access to education. Early on, when I even asked a few of them, they were very puzzled as to what I was even trying to ask them.
"And I found that so beautiful. A lot of educators and parents don't like it when their children or their students take their education for granted. But I knew even then, as a young Afghan girl that when Afghanistan gets to a place where young girls in Afghanistan have no memory whatsoever of the possible threat to their education, or their access to education, that is the day Afghanistan has achieved the kind of progress and development that can never be reversed. And even then, I wanted that kind of an experience for young Afghan girls. And I have ever since been fighting for that.
"So when I came to Middlebury College and I started that experience, my undergraduate studies in Vermont in 2007. I was 17 and I was quite overwhelmed by what I found myself. I felt extremely privileged after having learned about what even education in a place like Middlebury meant for American students. I was really overwhelmed. And then on top of it, the U.N. published a report that said only 6% of women have access to or have a college degree. And that was the last thing for me. I knew I had to do something."
On the education for girls at SOLA
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: "This is precisely why we turned SOLA into a boarding school in Afghanistan. With this idea that it would be a safe and nurturing environment located in Kabul City where we will have access to qualified teachers. But the girls will come to us from provinces. And for the listeners who are not necessarily quite familiar with Afghanistan and its geography, for a small school of our size — nearly 100 girls representing 28 of the 34 provinces — is a significant achievement. It is remarkable.
"SOLA has been home for girls from every corner of the country. It has essentially been a mini Afghanistan between our students. There are 12 languages and dialects of Afghanistan spoken or represented. And the girls, above all, have truly, truly embraced each other. In a way, showing others the power of the unity and what Afghanistan has always been about.
"We have started the SOLA experience at 6th grade, which is when girls are roughly 10 to 12 years old. For a few reasons. Initially when we thought of SOLA as a four year high school, we realized very quickly that girls coming to us from provinces in ninth grade, it would already be too late. In a lot of these provinces, schools lack resources, but most especially lack teachers. So a lot of these girls would go to school often without having any teachers, or access to teachers.
"And at the end of the academic year, the school principal would give them an arbitrary mark on their transcript and move them up to the next grade. And so when we started, initially working with girls at high school level, they were academically performing elementary school level. And we couldn't proudly say that SOLA is a school for girls from all over the country, knowing the reality in provinces. And that is when we started that experience in sixth grade level.
"At this age, girls in Afghanistan are still seen as young girls, not women. So it was much easier to convince their families to allow them to board, developmentally. It's an exciting time to work with young girls. And practically, it allowed us time and space to address academic gaps that a lot of these students would have. Whether that was in literature, or math or sciences. Before they reached high school with us.
"And we were very purposeful in making this a very gradual growth. We admitted our very first cohort of sixth grade students in 2016. Those girls are currently at 11th grade and they are scheduled to graduate SOLA high school in 2022. The very first graduating class. And ever since we have admitted a new cohort of sixth grade level. ... Every single grade is represented by girls from across Afghanistan. We have girls who come to us and meet people or meet girls from other parts of Afghanistan for the very first time in their lives, often being the first person in their families to have that experience.
"For the past five years, we've also sent a group of our students for a winter program, winter being our equivalent of summer break. So we've taken advantage of it by designing a short study abroad program, and typically taken our students to India for an educational trip, often for a month. And in most cases, these girls have been the first people in their families to travel outside of Afghanistan.
"And when they have gone back to their villages, to their homes, they've had people from their villages come to their house asking them what it was like to travel. What was their experience like, what it was like to be in India, what it was like to fly, for instance. And it is one example of the power of a boarding school model in a place like Afghanistan. Where these girls quickly go from being seen in their villages — not in all cases, but in some cases as potential young brides, or should be that way. To young girls who could bring resources, knowledge and skills back to their villages."
Can you tell us why you're in Rwanda right now?
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: "We made plans following the announcement by the U.S. government of unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan to make sure that the continuity of learning for our students who come from 28 of 34 provinces to our campus will never be compromised. And we were seriously concerned that as the first and only boarding school for girls in the country, doing business as usual would increasingly become irresponsible.
"So we looked at various contingency plans. One of which was to send our students home, providing them computers or smartphones and equipping them with Internet access so that they could continue with their education from the safety of their homes, but virtually. And we saw a dangerous trend as we were making those plans. We realized that the Taliban were increasingly attacking power grid line and telecommunication infrastructure across Afghanistan.
"And what quickly then became a nightmare for us was to send our girls home, even with all these equipments and a potential ability to get online. But then because they wouldn't have access to electricity, that they wouldn't be able to charge these laptops or smartphones. And unfortunately, we would lose contact with them and will have no way of being able to bring them back to school. So the next best option, among other options that we considered, was to look at a study abroad program. And this is how we have ended up in Rwanda.
"The initial plan was to look at countries in the region, ideally countries that are familiar to Afghanistan and our students' families. And then, as you know, in the recent months, thousands and thousands of Afghans started leaving the country to these neighboring countries. And it became very difficult to be able to create space for SOLA in one of these neighboring countries for a study abroad program. A long story short, we were able to, through a mutual friend of our school, connect with President Kagame, who extended the offer to host our study abroad program here in Rwanda. And that's how we ended up here."
What did it take to leave Afghanistan and move the school to Rwanda?
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: "Initially we were planning on doing a study abroad program. And I'm doing this quite discreetly without the intention of adding to the anxiety and fear that people in Afghanistan felt. Every time the U.S. government or any European country made public announcements urging citizens of their countries to leave Afghanistan, it had an incredibly psychologically damaging impact on people in Afghanistan, especially those who never had an option to leave the country.
"So I was very conscious of that. And it made sense to me to make sure that our study abroad program was going to happen in a very discrete manner. That I didn't want people looking at our temporary study abroad program as the first and only boarding school for girls in the country, which is a great hope for many girls across Afghanistan, also packing up and leaving. And so in this study abroad program, we had planned to bring with us a lot of these students' records.
"But unfortunately, you know, to our shock and obviously to great shock of many people in Afghanistan and outside of Afghanistan, our study abroad program very quickly turned into an evacuation out of Afghanistan. And at the very last minute, we had to make some very difficult decisions. And one of which was burning physical records on campus of our students, but especially of nearly 300 plus girls this year alone who applied to SOLA.
"And especially I wanted to make sure that those families who weren't successful in admitting their daughters to my school, that their information, their personal address, their phone numbers, their full names, their family members names were all protected. And so we very quickly burned as many records as we could. And then on the day the Taliban took over the city, we still have quite a lot of documents that we hadn't burned. And we realized that burning them would actually draw attention to our school and our location. So we came up with a Plan B, which was to throw all these papers in a large container and throw acid on them. To destroy any evidence of students and their names or families names and phone numbers."
The future of Afghanistan: How do you make sense of your life between the ages of 11 and 31? What's next?
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: "If you had asked me this question a few months ago, I may have been able to articulate something, but right now it's too fresh looking at it from the perspective of everything that has recently happened. And I'm really shocked. And I still look at all of this as a bad thing. But what I will say is I know we don't have much time. And without romanticizing about the resilience of people in Afghanistan, is that people in Afghanistan want the kind of freedoms that you want. They want the kind of opportunities for their children that you want. There is so much in common that I see between an Afghan parent and an American parent.
"These are things that are quite universal. And I want people to remember that. I want you to look at Afghanistan closely. I want you to think about the bravery of Afghan women who are pouring into the streets of our cities demanding their rights, but demanding their Islamic right to participate in the public space, to participate in the political life and economic life. To have access to education. And these are the brave women of Afghanistan who are continuing to be.
"And mind you, it is Afghan women, not men who are pouring into the streets of Afghanistan. And I see as of today that they have started to inspire men to follow their lead. Again, there is nothing to romanticize about the bravery or resilience of the Afghan people. There are a lot of us who wish not to be resilient. And to simply live our lives. But to say things like, Afghanistan is a tribal country, it has never experienced unity, it never will. It's extremely damaging.
"For one, in the past couple years of war, young Afghans have not lived under tribal structures. Afghanistan is an incredibly young country. More than 70% of the population is 25 or younger. And I will end by saying this. You asked me earlier how I felt when I was burning the records of my students. That fire has transformed into every inch of my body, and I am not alone in fueling that fire to continue to fight for girls and women and people of Afghanistan."
From The Reading List
Washington Post: "Opinion: I founded a boarding school for girls in Afghanistan. Don’t look away from us." — "In mid-July, in a rural part of Afghanistan, two sisters made a promise. They’d just arrived home for their semester break from their boarding school in Kabul, and their grandmother came to see them, carrying scythes. The Taliban, resurgent, was drawing closer to their village."
This program aired on September 7, 2021.