A young social entrepreneur, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, is challenging tradition and empowering women in her native country.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh discusses the future of girls in Afghanistan at the Asia Society in NY. Photo: Nusha Balyan
Shabana Basij-Rasikh discusses the future of girls in Afghanistan at the Asia Society in NY. Photo: Nusha Balyan

Shabana Basij-Rasikh was only six years old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and made it illegal for girls to go to school.

For five years, she dressed up as a boy to escort her older sister, who wasn’t allowed to walk on the streets by herself, to a secret school. It was the only way both could be educated, she says. Everyone involved with the school – teachers, students and parents – risked their lives so that the girls could learn.

Now 23, Basij-Rasikh is dedicated to improving girls’ education in her native country. At a recent panel discussion at the Asia Society in New York, Basij-Rasikh spoke about the future of women in Afghanistan. Despite her young age, she is the founder of two nonprofits devoted to education, including a boarding school for girls in Kabul. And one thing she wants everyone in the West to understand: Men are crucial in the conversation about women’s rights and independence.

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“Behind all of us who succeed is a father who recognizes the value of his daughter,” she says. Mothers are also key and they’re often the initial negotiators to educating their daughters. But in a society like Afghanistan, Basij-Rasikh explains: “We must have the support of men.”

Basij-Rasikh’s father was a general in the army before the Taliban took over. When that happened, he was jobless and forced into hiding. But being the first one in his family to get an education, he knew its value and insisted the same for his children, despite the new rulers.

“I was very lucky to grow up in a family where education was praised and daughters were treasured,” says Basij-Rasikh, whose mother was a teacher.

When the Taliban fell, Basij-Resikh’s own desire for education became more strident. At just 16 years old, she met with the Deputy Minister of Education in Kabul to propose the building of a high school in her ancestral village. She eventually got six classrooms and a well of clean drinking water.

Basij-Resikh passion for education brought her to the U.S., where she studied international studies and women and gender studies while on a full scholarship at Middlebury College. While there, she founded HELA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Afghan women through education. She was selected as one of Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women of 2010, and was awarded the Vermont Campus Compact 2011 Kunin Public Award for outstanding public service.

[pullquote]“I was very lucky to grow up in a family where education was praised and daughters were treasured,” – Shabana Basij-Rasikh[/pullquote]

Upon her return back to Afghanistan, her grandfather, who was exiled from his family for educating Basij-Rasikh’s mom, was one of the first people to congratulate her.

“He not only brags about my college degree, but also that I was the first woman to drive him through the street of Kabul,” says Basij-Rasikh with a wide smile on her face.

“My family believes in me and that’s why I dream big,” she says. “But my family dreams even bigger for me.” And that’s why she says she’s been able to become a purveyor of education and a catalyst for female empowerment.

In 2008, she co-founded SOLA, the School of Leadership in Afghanistan, the first and believed only boarding school for girls in Afghanistan. Disguised in an unassuming house in Kabul, the school attracts girls from different backgrounds and puts special emphasis on fostering a resourceful learning environment.

And even though the danger for girls attending school is not as big as it was when Basij-Rasikh was a child, there are still potential risks and many hindrances.

“For a rural family to send their daughter to school is a radical decision,” says Basij-Rasikh. It means leaving their daughters in the big city to live in a house far away from their families. “Afghans are not against education,” explains Basij-Rasikh. “It’s about access.”

Under the Taliban only a couple hundred girls managed to go to school, but today there are more than 3 million girls receiving an education, and Basij-Rasikh hopes to become an integral part of making those numbers grow faster. She recently became a global ambassador for 10×10 – Girl Rising, a global movement that raises awareness for women’s education.

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Her biggest goal is to make education in Afghanistan more accessible, and her efforts are showing steady progress. When SOLA opened its doors, there were only four students. Last year the class grew to 25, and for the next school year, they already have 40 girls enrolled.

When asked if she worries about her own security for openly trying to empower women in a region where Malala Yousafzai almost lost her life for going to school in the country next door, Basij-Rasikh responds with a firm no. Then she smiles and adds:

“My [sense of] security comes from being a general’s daughter.”

Watch Basij-Rasikh speak at the kick-off event for the 10×10 campaign on the International Day of the Girl.