Basij-Rasikh dressed as a boy to defy Tale­ban

Afghan ac­tivist who calls for more fe­male teach­ers

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

LON­DON: When the Tale­ban 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 Tale­ban, 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 Tale­ban 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.’.”

Giv­ing girls am­bi­tion

Af­ter the Tale­ban 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. — Reuters

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