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'Invest in education'

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Girls’ education is critical and urgent, Afghan educator Shabana Basij-Rasikh tells Ronita Torcato at the 10th edition of TEDxGateway in Mumbai

When Shabana Basij-Rasikh was 11 years old, she dressed as a boy to escort her older sister to, ostensibly, the bazaar. In Islamist societies like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban, a fundamentalist Muslim movement which seized control of much of that country, women have no agency and must be accompanied by male relatives to step outside the home.

It was not the Kabul market Shabana and her sister were going to. Tucked at the bottom of their grocery bags were books. The two girls were headed for a secret school, thanks to their father who believed in educating his daughters.

There are other brave people, men like Shabana’s father who risked deadly consequences to send their daughters to school. Educating girls is un-Islamic in the worldview of this militia which destroyed hundreds of schools.Today, the illiteracy rate for teenaged Afghan  girls is a whopping 63%, and nearly three million are out of school.

"If you wish to know how civilised a culture is, look at how they treat its women." The person who uttered this pearl of wisdom was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an apostle of peace and non-violence also known as the Frontier Gandhi. It's a quote that Shabana used in her talk at the 10th  TEDxGateway in  Mumbai. She was dressed in a deep brown salwar kameez, feet shod in black stilettos, her head clad in a hijab. At the one-on-one interview, she declines to take off her black headscarf even after I tell her I have met Iranian women who did so (only) in Mumbai. I should have known better. After all, it is not I, but she who will have to face the music in her homeland. Speaking of which, the Taliban also banned music in a country which Shabana deeply loves and defends, notwithstanding the depredations of stupid men.

I want to know how Afghan women cope with subjugation, and Shabana says she “is very cautious” even as she cites a Thomson Reuters Foundation study which has ranked India as the world's most dangerous country for women, ahead of Afghanistan. I am ashamed of my country-men, specifically the monsters who inflict sexual violence on women.

Thank goodness for small mercies, Indian girls don’t have to pretend to be men to go to school. Historically, women have shed restrictive gowns but not necessarily to pass themselves off as males. The most famous example is St Joan of Arc who cut off her hair and wore heavy armour to lead the French against the English invaders in battle.  In contemporaneous times, the phenomenon of girls masquerading as men is found in societies moored in misogyny, tradition and religious diktat.  The practice of  parents raising  girls  as boys is known in Afghanistan as bacha posh.

The award-winning Iranian film director Majidi Majidi spotlights the topic of young girls  forced into deception in his film Baran which revolves around a 17-year-old chaiwallah who discovers  a construction-site worke is actually a girl. It is a splendid film and I am thrilled to connect with a real-life Baran.

“Men have the moral responsibility to engage with and support women in society. It is troubling to see the mistreatment of women but it is also good to see young people getting engaged in a conversation to challenge absurd ideas,” says Shabana in a strong American accent. She had gone to the US under an  exchange program, and graduated in 2011 from Middlebury College in Vermont where she founded HELA, a nonprofit  for empowering Afghan women through education. She also raised funds through foundations and lectures across the US to build wells in Kabul and a high school for girls in her ancestral village. In her graduation year, she was awarded the Vermont Campus Madeline Kunin Public Award for outstanding public service, effective leadership and community-building. On her return,  she co-founded the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA) the first and only private boarding school for girls. SOLA students come from 23 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Beginning with four students in a rented house, SOLA  today has  70 students  and enjoys recognition by the Ministry of Education, which has donated a five-acre plot. SOLA has also secured overseas scholarships valued at more than $9.4 million  “and we are now entering a new and exciting period of growth. We intend to more than double our student body over the next five years. By 2022, our goal is to operate a school of Grades 6-12, with up to 175 girls studying on a permanent campus where our girls can learn in safety, and grow to become Afghanistan's new generation of female leaders.”

One of her students was targeted by terrorists. Another had to leave after an uncle threatened to kill her father. Even so, Shabana believes the most effective antidote to extremism is education. “SOLA means peace and our girls will help to bring about a peaceful, prosperous and united Afghanistan.”

Shabana has brought her students to Indian schools  “so they can challenge misconceptions about Afghanistan“. Currently, she is trying to expand partnerships with institutions like Ashoka University.

“Our mission is to provide Afghan girls an education that promotes critical thinking, a sense of purpose, and respect for self and others,” says Shabana, who was named one of CNN International's Leading Women of 2014 and one of National Geographic's 2014 Emerging Explorers. Earlier this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and First Lady Rula Ghani awarded Shabana, the Malalai Medal, one of Afghanistan's highest national honours, for promoting girls' access to education.

Short takes

  • She co-founded SOLA, the School of Leadership Afghanistan, the first and only private boarding school for girls in her country.
  • Her goal is to operate a school up to 175 girls studying on a new, permanent campus where girls can learn in safety, and can become Afghanistan's new generation of female leaders.
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