When she walked into the room, my first thought was, ‘How can all that fierce determination fit inside such a tiny young woman?’ She began to speak—slowly, deliberately, with patience, strength, and grace—and I sat transfixed, tears streaming down my face as I struggled with my own sense of shame and shared responsibility.
I needed to sit in that discomfort. We all do.
I didn’t bring a notebook with me. I wish I had, because I can’t do her words justice from memory. At the same time, I’m glad I wasn’t distracted by trying to capture her every word. Instead, I simply listened, and her truths permeated my soul.
The people who have the firmest grasp on the importance of locking girls out of education—who understand the significant threat of a girl with a book—are the terrorists.
No one else seems to get it.
If they did, educating girls and women would be the number one priority of nations across the globe. Clearly, it’s not. In fact, restricting girls’ access to education is the primary goal of many terrorist groups. It is their only hope of maintaining their positions of power.
In May of this year, a man blew himself up in a car parked outside the gates of Sayed Ul-Shuhada high school in Kabul, Afghanistan as girls were streaming out after their afternoon classes. The first blast was followed by two more as girls rushed out of the building in terror. More than 100 people died, and over 240 were wounded: “The bombs left the students and teachers of the school in shock and despair. Gul Nasrin Niazi, 16 and in the 10th grade, was just stepping out of the school when the bombs exploded. She saw a schoolmate fall to the ground; she ran for her life. Weeks after the bombing, Niazi is scared of sudden noises. She suffers from chronic headaches and fears being left alone in a room. ‘I hate my school uniform,’ said Niazi, whose parents are too poor to afford care for her mental health. ‘My headache gets worse when I pass by my school. I am afraid of my school’” (NY Times).
And that is the goal, isn’t it?
Now that the Taliban have retaken control of Afghanistan, girls and women are once again left without any access to education: “For many girls, the end of their educational freedom also means shutting down their dreams. Zayba, the 12th grader, said she had planned since childhood to study for a career as a surgeon. But last month, she said, her future seemed to evaporate. ‘The day the Taliban took control, I was thinking: This is the end of life for women,’ she said” (NY Times).
Somehow, against all odds, the woman at the front of the room finds reason to hope. As soon as she learned that the US planned to withdraw all of its troops, she began searching for a solution. As the days passed, and the Taliban took control of more and more provinces, she realized that staying in country was no longer an option. She reached out to other nations, and managed to find her boarding school and her students a new home in Rwanda. Everyone who could leave made it out safely.
As she continued to speak, her focus was clearly on the future, her eyes brimming with excitement as she talked about the school’s new home—her new home. Rwanda knows too well the horrors of war and genocide. For years now the country has been engaged in the long and difficult process of healing and reconciliation, and they welcome the opportunity to provide support and community for their new friends from Afghanistan. The school, with a current student body of 92, has the opportunity to double in size in its new location. And while they won’t be able to continue serving girls living in Afghanistan—at least for now—they plan to focus on educating girls from refugee camps, an extremely vulnerable population.
Finding a new path when your life is violently upended and choosing to focus on hope and love and all that is good in the world—few people can find that strength. Yet Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder of the School of Leadership Afghanistan, has done just that.
We must prioritize educating the world’s girls and women. Thank you, Shabana. You are such a bright light in the darkness, giving so many families with young girls a glimmer of hope for tomorrow.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.