SHABANA BASIJ-RASIKH: You know, I grew up thinking, believing that it was normal for a girl to risk her life in order to get an education.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
This is Shabana Basij-Rasikh. She grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a home with five other siblings.
BASIJ-RASIKH: Two older sisters, one older brother. And I have a younger sister and a younger brother.
RAZ: Shabana's parents had big dreams for all of their kids, and education was a top priority. So every day, her older siblings would head to school while Shabana, still too young to start school, would study at home with her mom.
BASIJ-RASIKH: When I look back at my early education, it's my mother who helped me and all of my siblings learn how to read and write.
RAZ: But then one day, in 1996, the Taliban took control of Kabul and imposed strict new rules that completely changed the city, especially for women.
BASIJ-RASIKH: When the Taliban came to power, they required women to wear a burka, so essentially covering themselves head-to-toe, often in a blue-colored veil. And they were not allowed to walk outside alone. They had to be escorted by a male family member. People were not allowed to watch TV, listen to music. Men were required to grow a beard whether they liked it or not. They were required to wear traditional clothing. Girls would be prohibited from attending school. Women would not be allowed to go to work.
RAZ: So Shabana's two older sisters had to drop out of school.
BASIJ-RASIKH: They had no option, especially my older sister had no option. She had just graduated high school. The only option she had was to go abroad. My second-oldest sister, whose education was cut off in seventh grade, her options were limited too.
RAZ: Basically, her only option was to go to a secret school. But to do that, she would need Shabana's help.
BASIJ-RASIKH: And that's when I remember me dressing up as a boy became a serious conversation.
RAZ: Shabana picks up that story from the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BASIJ-RASIKH: So for the next five years, I dressed as a boy to escort my older sister, who was no longer allowed to be outside alone, to a secret school. It was the only way we both could be educated. Each day, we took a different route so that no one would suspect where we were going. We would cover our books in grocery bags so it would seem we were just out shopping.
The school was in a house, more than 100 of us packed in one small living room. It was cozy in winter but extremely hot in summer. We all knew we were risking our lives - the teacher, the students and our parents. From time to time, the school would suddenly be canceled for a week because Taliban were suspicious. We always wondered what they knew about us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I mean, were you scared? Every day, were you just terrified?
BASIJ-RASIKH: I think, you know, some days we weren't scared. I think sometimes - you know, human nature is pretty interesting. You know, sometimes when you do something on a daily basis, it becomes your new normal. And then occasionally, we had these real reminders of how incredibly risky it was to be doing what we were doing. You know, sometimes those reminders came in different ways. It was either hearing stories about a secret school being discovered by the Taliban and the teacher being beheaded in front of the students, the students being punished or their families being punished.
Some days it was feeling like we were being followed. And I think those were the most-scariest experiences. We would either randomly walk into somebody's house whose door was open and stay there for several minutes and then get out and go back to our home or not even go to the secret school as we were instructed because we didn't want to potentially lead anyone to the secret school. Or some days, just walk into the market and pretend like we were out shopping and then come home and beg our parents to stop sending us to the secret school.
We would ask them, you know, like, why can't we be like every other girl in our neighborhood or our relatives who don't take this risk? What is the point? Why do we have to go to the secret school? It's not like we're going to graduate high school and go to college, get a job and work. Why are we risking all of our lives? Why can't we just sit at home?
I feel now, looking back at all of that, I feel so guilty because I can't imagine being my mother. You know, I can't imagine what went through her head every single day. You know, she would say goodbye to us, and she had no idea if we would return home alive. She had no idea what time to expect us to come home. But they were so patient in explaining to us why it was important that we risked our lives to get an education.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BASIJ-RASIKH: My father, he would say, listen, my daughter. You can lose everything you own in your life. Your money can be stolen. You can be forced to leave your home during a war. But the one thing that will always remain with you is what is here. And if we have to sell our blood to pay your school fees, we will. So do you still not want to continue?
I remember waking up one morning to the sound of joy in my house. My father was listening to BBC News on his small gray radio. There was a big smile on his face, which was unusual then because the news mostly depressed him. The Taliban are gone, my father shouted. I didn't know what it meant, but I could see that my father was very, very happy. You can go to a real school now, he said.
RAZ: It's amazing because, on this episode, everyone has sort of gone undercover to expose something or to highlight something. You were literally going undercover for five years just to get an education, something that the vast majority of us take for granted.
BASIJ-RASIKH: Yeah. I thought this is how it was done everywhere and that this is what girls had to do. And then 9/11 happened. Then the Taliban regime was toppled. Then in 2002, as an 11-year-old girl, soon to be 12 years old, I found myself in a public school for the very first time in my life. The very first time I saw a woman without a burqa out in the public was the principal of my school - she was dressed incredibly beautifully and sharp, and she was wearing this bright-red lipstick. And the minute I saw her, I was so scared for her safety. I couldn't believe. I was literally and physically cringing, you know, out of fear for her safety. But there she was, leading teachers and students and instructing people what to do.
There were thousands and thousands of girls - most wearing burqas, some young, like me, not wearing a burqa - around the school. And this was the day we were getting our results after several tests that we had taken. Taliban regime, obviously, had burnt all the records of, you know, girls. And so the government announced that girls could come to school to take an entrance exam into whatever grade they felt comfortable being placed into, so I took the entrance exam for sixth grade going into seventh grade.
And the day that our results were being announced, our - my teacher called up my name, and when she looked at me, she had this shock on her face, and she said, oh, no. And I faced the group of students standing there who were meant to be in my class, and I was shocked, as well. Most of these girls were six years older than I was. And that was the very first time I realized how incredibly lucky I was to have the parents I have.
That was the very first time I had great appreciation for what my parents tried to tell us all along during the Taliban regime, that sending us to a secret school, that allowing us to get an education despite the risk was going to be the biggest investment in our life and that, yes, we probably didn't realize it at that time, but we would at some point. And I was standing there. I - all I wanted to do was to hug my parents and thank them and - over and over for what they had done. That feeling was incredibly overwhelming for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Shabana Basij-Rasikh - she eventually graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. She's now the managing director of SOLA. It's a nonprofit that helps exceptional young Afghan women access education worldwide. And she runs the only all-girls boarding school in Afghanistan. You can see her full talk at ted.com.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEP COVER")
DR. DRE: (Rapping) Tonight's the night that I plan my hit.
SNOOP DOGG: Yeah.
DR. DRE: (Rapping) Deep cover on the incognito tip. Breaking fools off if I have to, peeling caps too, so you - so you know I'm coming at you. I guess that's part of the game.
RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show, Going Undercover, this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. You can also listen to this show anytime by subscribing to our podcast. You can do it now at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts.
Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Benjamin Klempay. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.
If you want to let us know what you think about the show, please go to Apple Podcasts and write a review. Also, you can write directly to us. That's firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can tweet at us. It's @tedradiohour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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