Shabana Basij-Rasikh: The ongoing fight to educate Afghan girls In 2016, Shabana Basij-Rasikh created Afghanistan's School of Leadership for girls. When the Taliban took control in 2021, she helped her students flee and continued their education abroad.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh: The ongoing fight to educate Afghan girls

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - what leadership looks like, and is it possible to lead your country if you're forced to flee it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Welcome to special coverage of Afghanistan...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Next, the breaking news out of Afghanistan...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Afghanistan...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Next, to Afghanistan. The Taliban...

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.

ZOMORODI: In the summer of 2021 as the U.S. was withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: It's time for American troops to come home.

ZOMORODI: ...Fears were growing that after 20 years, the Taliban would return to Kabul and take back control of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I stand squarely behind my decision.

SHABANA BASIJ-RASIKH: You know, I had two different types of reaction. One was almost the complete denial that we were headed into this worst-case scenario. How could the world allow this to happen? It's just not going to happen.

ZOMORODI: This is Shabana Basij-Rasikh.

BASIJ-RASIKH: But simultaneously, as a leader of an all-girls school, being responsible for the safety of young women whose families completely trusted us, obviously, the response and the preparation was different.

ZOMORODI: Shabana is talking about the school she founded, the School of Leadership, Afghanistan.

BASIJ-RASIKH: Or SOLA for short, which means peace in Pashto.

ZOMORODI: SOLA is Afghanistan's first and only all-girls boarding school. And Shabana knew what it was like to grow up in the country when educating girls was illegal.

BASIJ-RASIKH: We would have these daily reminders from our teachers in the secret school that say when you get out of the house, walk away as fast as you can. And remember - if you get caught by the Taliban, take them to your home. Don't bring them here. Less people will be killed in your house. More people will be killed here.

ZOMORODI: That vigilance stuck with Shabana. And so as the Taliban closed in on Kabul that August, she was ready.

BASIJ-RASIKH: Probably the most dangerous thing you can do in these kinds of overwhelming situation is not moving forward, not making bold decisions. Without being able to get into too many details, I'll say that we'd been working around the clock for pretty much most of the summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BASIJ-RASIKH: I was very closely tracking the districts across the 28 provinces where our students come from against the districts that were falling to the control of Taliban throughout the summer. And obviously, that increasingly looked bleak. And this was happening at a time when we had Eid holiday, and the girls went home. They came back in the beginning of August. And as they were trickling into campus, Kabul fell to the control of Taliban...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Scenes of panic and pandemonium at Kabul Airport today...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: ...As people desperately try to leave.

BASIJ-RASIKH: ...And turned into a last-minute evacuation out of Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: ...Described as a chaotic exodus. Now people are literally clinging on to U.S. military...

ZOMORODI: What can you tell us about getting the girls out?

BASIJ-RASIKH: What I can tell you is that I think the most difficult experience for the girls was getting through the airport. That was quite traumatic - and then, obviously, later on, concerns for the safety and well-being of families and loved ones left behind. We left Afghanistan shortly after the fall of Kabul City. We got to Doha from Kabul. And then five days later, on August 25, an entire group left Doha to get to Rwanda. August 25 is when we arrived there. And four days later, August 29, is when we resumed classes for our students.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BASIJ-RASIKH: These dates were like signposts on a road I never wanted to be on.

ZOMORODI: Here's more from Shabana Basij-Rasikh on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BASIJ-RASIKH: SOLA's departure from Afghanistan made headlines. And I think it has drawn the attention partly because how swiftly the Taliban took over Afghanistan and how quickly so much of what was beautiful about my country turned to dust. I never imagined Afghanistan would fall as fast as it did. No one imagined it. But I want you to know I haven't stopped dreaming - neither have those girls of SOLA. We have taken our dreams and adapted them. Agility, adaptation, resilience - these concepts are code to everything that SOLA is. I'll explain.

Back in 2012, we ran a program where girls lived at SOLA but primarily studied at high schools in Kabul. And we secured scholarships for these girls to pursue their education overseas, including here in America. It worked. It worked well. But I realized I was contributing to something I never wanted to see - a brain drain of Afghanistan's educated women. So I realized I had to adapt. I wanted to educate Afghan girls who would become educated Afghan women who would then educate other girls. And all of them together, over time, would build a new Afghanistan from the bottom up. And they would be among its leaders. I needed a place where these girls would learn to read English and Quran. I needed a place where the administration and instructors would be women, a place with a notion of female leadership. Afghan female leadership would become norm for every student. I needed a place that quite simply did not exist in Afghanistan. So my team and I created it. In 2016, SOLA became a full-fledged boarding school for girls, the first and only.

(APPLAUSE)

BASIJ-RASIKH: Educating girls, breaking barriers - this is what we do at SOLA. We became known for this nationwide. Parents came to us from across Afghanistan asking us to admit their daughters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I want to ask you about the word in the name of the school - School of Leadership. Why did you decide you really wanted to include that word? What does it mean for you that it's a school of leadership? And how do you explain that to your students and their parents?

BASIJ-RASIKH: Yeah. When talking about our students, I used to say we are educating future leaders of Afghanistan. And I quickly dropped the word future because already...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BASIJ-RASIKH: ...The girls are demonstrating leadership at such a young age and, most importantly, in ways that is organic, that we haven't even asked them to but they engage in themselves.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

BASIJ-RASIKH: But one example that was quite amazing to me is we have a number of girls from Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan where girls' access to education is just well below 10%. And so when our girls from Helmand Province would go home for their winter break, schools would be in session in their province. And they decided on their own - four of them - to go to the local public school and volunteer to teach for the 2 1/2 months they were home. And in doing so, they doubled the number of female teachers in that school.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

BASIJ-RASIKH: That school only had four female teachers. And these were our seventh, eighth and ninth graders, mind you. One of them continues to talk about her desire to open a branch of SOLA in Helmand Province one day. And so what I love about it is that by having this critical word as part of our school name allows our girls, at a really young but a really critical time in their life, to reflect on what it means to be a leader or to become one.

ZOMORODI: You are now the head of a school of leadership of a country where the students cannot go back - at least not now. How do you teach your students to be leaders of a place that they can't live in and be who they are?

BASIJ-RASIKH: I come back to where we have landed. You know, we have many Rwandan friends who remind us that they themselves were once refugees. But as refugees, they prepared for a return someday. They worked hard. They deliberately worked towards that. And now they're back. And so we have a responsibility to prepare for that return someday. But until then, we have a lot of work ahead of us.

On February 25, 2022, exactly six months to the day since our arrival in Rwanda, we announced our new admission season at SOLA. And we are admitting Afghan girls from refugee communities across the world. For a young girl, those are the most critical years of her life. And imagine putting her in a safe, nurturing educational environment in a community of other young Afghan women and then working towards this notion of preparing for a return to their homeland one day, but returning as highly educated young women who can then immediately roll up their sleeves and be at the forefront of the new direction that they want to take the country to. And the possibility in this darkest time for us Afghans to know that this potential exists is one that excites me and my team to do more.

ZOMORODI: You are building this network of Afghan girls and women into a sisterhood. And it sounds like you think that's just as important as knowing how to read and write and think critically.

BASIJ-RASIKH: Absolutely. If you look at most effective women's movements, it has always started with this idea of a network of women, a sisterhood that lifted each other up. And for us, sisterhood is an incredibly important aspect of the SOLA experience. When we had met a young woman, the very first person that she meets is her big sister.

ZOMORODI: Another student.

BASIJ-RASIKH: Yep, it's another SOLA student - because we have students coming to SOLA from all across Afghanistan. We have a girl coming from Kandahar, Badakhshan, from Herat. Right now they are each other's family. We've had, unfortunately, in the recent years, you know, with civil war and since then, a huge ethnic tension in the country. And then in the midst of all of this, you bring girls from across the country. And the very first message you give them is that your big sister, the person who's going to make sure that you have the best first year ever, is, by the way, someone (laughter) who's from the complete opposite part of the country. And it doesn't matter because that is not the focus. The focus here is that you are big sister, little sister, and that's the relationship that will define your experience at SOLA.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BASIJ-RASIKH: I was interviewing a girl who was applying for sixth grade. I asked her why she wanted to come to SOLA. She said, I have dreamed of this. I've dreamed of coming to SOLA ever since I was a little girl. In all these years that I have interviewed girls from across Afghanistan, this was the first time that a young girl said that to me. Why do I keep doing what I do despite the risk that comes with it and all the uncertainty? Because Afghanistan is a country of hope and dreams. It's my home, and it always will be. And now, out there in the most remote corners of Afghanistan, are young girls dreaming to attend SOLA.

My community, my students are settling and thriving in Rwanda. And I'm so grateful we're there. I see Afghanistan now through TV news reports or on my phone when friends who are still in Afghanistan call me. But SOLA is there, too. We have planted roots that can never be destroyed. Years ago, I challenged the world to dare to educate Afghan girls. Those girls are young women now, and they will do what Afghan woman have always done - meet uncertainty head-on and rise above it. I know they will do their part.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I know you are still thinking about the future of your school, and something that you mention on the TED stage is that you and your team had purchased a plot of land in Kabul where you were going to build a new campus, and now that land is just sitting there. But it is still there, right? Technically, it's still yours.

BASIJ-RASIKH: It's still there. We still hold legal rights to that plot of land. We will for a very long time, as originally been decided. We have invested quite a bit in the construction of that. But, you know, in terms of when we are able to return to that, time will tell.

ZOMORODI: And meanwhile, as we've seen - I'm sure this didn't necessarily come as a surprise to you, but the Taliban have broken their promise of letting girls go back to school. Despite this, how are you managing to stay optimistic, Shabana?

BASIJ-RASIKH: Well, the Taliban have walked back on many, many promises they have made in this short period of time. But for as long as they hold a policy to suppress girls and women, they are not going to be in any way successful. They can't silence half of the population. They simply can't. The bravery of Afghan women is not a product of the past 20 years; it has existed all along. Afghan women have fought many hardships for the dignity of human experience in Afghanistan overall, and I know that they will continue to do that. Each one of those acts of silencing women only awakens the anger and sense of resistance in thousands more. And I don't mean to, in any way, be dramatic about this but truly speak about the frustration of Afghan women that is there, this absolute unshakable enough-is-enough sense that women across Afghanistan feel and will continue to fight for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's Shabana Basij-Rasikh. She's the founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, which is, for now, based in Rwanda. You can see her full talks at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about what leadership looks like. This episode was produced by Fiona Geiran, Katie Monteleone and Diba Mohtasham. It was edited by Katie Simon and me. Our TED radio production staff also includes Rachel Faulkner, James Delahoussaye, Matthew Cloutier, Rommel Wood, Margaret Cirino and Katherine Sypher. Our audio engineer is Brian Jarboe. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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