Do you remember your first day of school? I don’t remember the actual day, but I do have photos of myself, standing outside my first grade classroom, smiling, wearing a plaid dress and knee socks. I do remember my children’s first school days—the nervous excitement they showed and the bittersweet pride I felt at witnessing this important milestone. While I don’t take those moments for granted, there was never a doubt that those moments would come. It’s common now to see Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram light up with school photos that document every moment of our children’s educational lives. A few months ago, I received an email from an old friend that provided some much-needed perspective.
The email offered a link to a Ted Talk by a woman named Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder of SOLA—Afghanistan’s first all-girl boarding school. The word “sola” means “peace” in the Pashto language, but it is also an acronym for School of Leadership, Afghanistan. Shabana was 6 years old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and made it illegal for girls to go to school. So, for five years, her family dressed her as a boy and sent her to a secret school to learn. Even at this young age, she understood the risks that she—and her parents—were undertaking. She would walk for 30 minutes, even an hour, to schools. The locations would move, and she would walk different paths each day; sometimes class would take place in the morning and other times in the afternoon.
This dedication to a daughter’s education was rare. Shabana’s parents wanted a strong, educated child—one that could take part in their country’s future. Both of her parents were educated, a rarity in Afghanistan, even today. She once quoted her father as saying, “You can lose everything you own in life…But, the one thing that will always remain with you is what is in here (pointing to his head).”
She eventually finished high school in the United States, through the State Department’s Youth Exchange Studies program and graduated from Middlebury College in 2011. While still in college, Shabana co-founded SOLA with only four students. Today, over 30 students aging between 11 and 19 (and representing all major Afghan ethnic groups, religious sects, and tribes) attend the Kabul-based preparatory school. Each girl signs an honor code saying they understand that SOLA has zero tolerance for ethnic discrimination.
Shabana and the SOLA administration rightly believe that women should take part in the future of Afghanistan, even as their current roles are minimal. Today, women make up just over 20% of the labor force. According to SOLA’s website, there are 3 female ministers in the current administration. Among the 34 Afghan provinces, there is one female governor, one female mayor, and one female chief provincial prosecutor. Afghanistan’s education system ranks among the lowest in the world when measuring funding and educational attainment, at all levels. In 2007, only 6% of Afghan women over age 25 had ever received formal education; only 12% of women over the age of 15 were literate.
As a result of regime changes in Afghanistan, the country has seen significant improvements in their educational infrastructure and attendance rates. It is reported that there are now over 14,000 educational institutions, and the country has established national curriculum standards. Today, more than 3 million girls are enrolled in school in Afghanistan. Still, girls continue to face significant challenges. Female students—even those enrolled at SOLA—must have great courage to pursue a formal education. Because of cultural traditions and stereotypes, many girls still hide the fact that they are in school, even from family members and friends. SOLA intentionally keeps a low profile as social cultural standards continue to evolve. The school employs guards to protect the students from conservative forces that might oppose female education.
Shabana strongly believes that investment in women’s education is smart economic strategy for Afghanistan—or any country. Educated women are essential to creating a culture of diversity and awareness. Current leaders bring with them generational baggage from over 30 years of conflict. SOLA believes that a new generation with progressive ideas, courage of convictions, and understanding of technology will lead the way toward lasting change. It is their mission to create a generation of women who want to lead and want to be a part of Afghanistan’s future. She, herself, has plans to attend law school and wants to become active in her nation’s government. In an interview with Glamour magazine, Shabana said that her lifelong dream is “to become a minister of women’s affairs in the Afghan government.”
SOLA and Shabana continue to move forward, making plans for future generations. They are working toward accreditation and making the school self-sustainable. The SOLA Board of Directors believes that their boarding school model can be replicated in other countries in conflict or post-conflict transitions. In an interview with National Geographic, Shabana said, “Every year is a ‘decisive year’ for Afghanistan. But if you think about it that way then you really lose momentum. Here’s my answer to people who ask what will happen in Afghanistan. I say it is a country that is full of potential, possibilities, and hope.”
I know that Shabana Basij-Rasikh never took a photo on her first day of school. She does have a photograph of herself, clad in cap and gown, on the day of her college graduation. But, even if no photo of her ever existed, her impact on the lives of Afghan women cannot be erased. It is true that many Americans take for granted the opportunities we have to educate ourselves and advance our stations in life. I hope that I can help my own daughter understand that her education is both a right and a privilege. And I am thankful that I can walk her to her classroom each day without fear. “I dream big, but my family dreams bigger for me,” says Shabana.
Let’s dream big, too—for our daughters and for daughters everywhere.
P.S.: The second annual #GivingTuesday is December 2, 2014—consider SOLA and other organizations that help promote rights for our daughters.
About Giving Tuesday:
“It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to come together to give something more. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Join us and be a part of a global celebration of a new tradition of generosity.”
From Shabana earlier this week:
“You won’t believe this, but we received a word from a donor who has challenged us to raise $100,000 before the end of the year to give SOLA a $100,000 grant! This will be an added exposure that I know and hope will translate into some support for SOLA. Thank you very much!”