When the Taliban banned girls’ education in Afghanistan, six-year-old Shabana Basij-Rasikh started dressing as a boy and for five years risked her life to attend a secret school.
Today, 14 years on, she runs Afghanistan’s only boarding school for girls, aiming to foster a new generation of leaders across professions who can help create a strong country following decades of war.
“It’s especially important to educate young girls in Afghanistan because we have not tapped into half of society,” said Basij-Rasikh. “We’re talking about a phenomenal opportunity for Afghanistan.”
Despite millions of girls entering education since the fall of the Taliban, many still miss out because of a huge shortage of female teachers, says Basij-Rasikh, now 25, who has won international acclaim for her work championing girls’ education.
The gender gap in primary schools remains the largest globally with only 7 girls for every 10 boys, falling to 5.5 girls at secondary level.
Basij-Rasikh, a speaker on Tuesday at the Trust Women conference on women’s rights and trafficking run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said she was lucky to grow up in a family where daughters were prized.
Her grandfather insisted Basij-Rasikh’s mother go to school even though his father disowned him for doing so.
Basij-Rasikh’s father – an army general who was the first boy in his family to be schooled – was also adamant his daughters should be educated, even when the Islamist Taliban took power in 1996.
“My parents knew they were risking our lives in sending us to a secret school,” she said. “But it was a lot harder for them to imagine their daughters growing up uneducated. For them, that would have been a major step backwards.”
Basij-Rasikh and her older sister – dressed in a burqa – would vary their route to school every day to avoid arousing suspicions, hiding their books in grocery bags. They had several “terrifying close calls”.
“Afterwards we’d beg our parents to let us stay at home like all the other girls we knew,” she said.
“But my father would always say, ‘Look, you can lose everything in life, but there is one thing that nobody can take away from you, and that’s your education.’.”
After the Taliban fell in 2001, Basij-Rasikh attended a public school before going to college in the United States. While there, she co-founded the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) with the aim of giving young Afghans access to an education abroad and jobs back home.
In 2012, she turned SOLA – which means “peace” in the Pashto language – into the country’s first girls’ boarding school to educate girls from across the country.
The Kabul school places strong emphasis on critical thinking and leadership skills. Extra-curricular activities that would raise eyebrows in most of Afghanistan include everything from skateboarding and rock-climbing to driving lessons.
SOLA has 25 students and has helped 45 girls study in the United States, Canada, Britain, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh, with scholarships amounting to $9.5 million.
Some hope to be doctors, others want to become the country’s first female president. One dreams of becoming an astronaut.
“Most of them are the first girl in their family to receive an education. It’s a huge change,” said Basij-Rasikh who plans to expand the school to 340 students in seven years.
The guards at SOLA are a reminder that it is still risky for girls to go to school.
One student was nearly killed with her father by a roadside bomb in her home province. Her father received a phone call afterwards warning him of another attack if his daughter returned to school but he refused to be cowered.
In parts of Afghanistan militants have burnt down schools, poisoned schoolgirls and thrown acid in their faces, but Basij-Rasikh says they return to class as soon as they can.
To help boost girls’ education, Basij-Rasikh wants to see more female teachers. In conservative communities this can make the difference between a girl going to school or staying at home, she said, yet less than a third of teachers are women.
Female teachers can also be role models and confidantes, Basij-Rasikh said, particularly as girls reach puberty and are more likely to be affected by traditional beliefs – high rates of early marriage are another reason why girls drop out.
Basij-Rasikh believes Afghanistan could change dramatically in the coming decades if girls are allowed to reach their potential.
“If you want to be inspired by young people go see the girls in Afghanistan who value education so much because they know what it feels like not to have access to it,” she said.