MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to bring you the story of one young woman for whom going to school was literally an act of courage. Shabana Basij-Rasikh was six when the Taliban took over in Afghanistan. They made it illegal for girls to go to school. As a result, for years, Shabana and her sister put their lives on the line to go to a secret school in Kabul. Her persistence and bravery eventually led her to Middlebury College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 2010.
Now she's cofounder of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, that's a nonprofit that helps young Afghan women access education around the world and jobs back in Afghanistan. And Shabana Basij-Rasikh is with us now from the Aspen Ideas Festival. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations on everything you've accomplished.
SHABANA BASIJ RASIKH: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: The idea of being banned from going to school is one that, I think, many Americans just cannot fathom. And I understand that in order for you to go to school, you dressed as a boy to escort your older sister who was not allowed to be outside alone. Could you just tell us a little bit more about that?
BASIJ RASIKH: Well, as you know, Michel, during Taliban, one of the things that was particularly difficult for the people of Afghanistan was this denial of rights for half of the population - girls not being able to go to school, women not being allowed to go to job, and something that was very strange and new to a lot of people, certainly older generation. But scary in a way that for younger generation it was a normal way of growing up 'cause they had no comparison, no memory of what it could be like.
MARTIN: Who came up the idea of dressing you as a boy?
BASIJ RASIKH: Well, in some ways it was - I'm a very petite person to begin with, so in some ways that helped. My older sister, who had to go to a secret school, but walking outside she had to wear a burqa. So accompanying her, she couldn't be outside alone under Taliban - you could rarely see women walking alone outside. So in some ways, it was a strategy that helped both of us to receive an education.
But what is so shocking to me, to this day, is that I grew up under a regime that banned education for young girls. I mean, for six years of their existence in Afghanistan. And today, well, a decade after the Taliban regime, you have millions of girls who continue to struggle to receive an education in one way or another.
To put it into context, we have a literacy rate in Afghanistan is still skyrocketing, especially for women. You have around 90 percent of women in the country who have never been to a school. You know, we talk about a country where maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. You know, you talk about a society where it's quite challenging for girls in rural Afghanistan to receive an education.
MARTIN: But why is that? Is it because the schools don't exist because their families won't permit them to go to school? And I do want to point out, again, that your father was a very strong champion of your going to school.
BASIJ RASIKH: Absolutely.
MARTIN: That is a fact that cannot be overlooked. But why is it that the challenge still exists?
BASIJ RASIKH: Well, to put it back in some ways to the American audience - can you ever imagine the United States going through more than 30 years of continuous war? We - one thing that I always try to tell people here is that please don't think Afghans being against education because that's certainly not the case.
That's something that I personally was challenged at a very young age, when people - older men from - with long beards and turbans from rural Afghanistan came to Kabul to my father and me, from my father's village in eastern Afghanistan, trying to convince us how important it is for their daughters to receive an education. You know, because of these 30 years of war, people have always been busy trying to survive. A lot of places have never simply had a school for girls.
If you go to a rural community in Afghanistan today, and you talk about what is most needed they will tell you the problems they have; lack of healthcare, no access to provincial centers or to the market, you know, no education. They will tell you that not having a school for their children is a big problem. But if you ask them to prioritize the needs and what they want to accomplish first, they will definitely tell you they want a health clinic first - they want a road giving them access to a provincial center.
Education comes closer to the bottom of the list, not because they don't have a desire to receive an education or want their children to be educated, but at the moment, education is seen as a luxury that a lot of people cannot afford.
MARTIN: And we've skipped past some of the challenges that you experienced, in part because you want to focus on your work now and you don't want to make yourself the center of the story, but just mentioning that there were times when you would certainly have to disguise your books. And there were times when school would be canceled because you feared that you were being followed, again, all of these experiences that would be very alien to most of the people listening to our conversation now.
Talk about your work now - and also, I think a lot of people would be interested to know, how can the international community help? I mean, as you pointed out, there are many, many people who would like their daughters and their sons to have an education, but they don't see a way forward. How can the international community help, and tell us about your work now.
BASIJ RASIKH: Well, Michel, I will make a connection to my childhood word scholar. I received an education under Taliban and it was quite dangerous. And I was just very privileged that I had the supportive parents I have who always pushed me to study, to risk my life and risk their life for them to receive an education. But what I see that's similar to, even today, in my students is that support of parents. What is so amazing about our school, the School of Leadership Afghanistan, we are located in Kabul, but we have students from rural Afghanistan.
The classic problem in Afghanistan is always the divide between opportunities and access to opportunities in cities versus rural Afghanistan - has always been more challenging for women. So bringing young girls from provinces to receive a quality education in Kabul is what we focus on. And yet, you see that a lot of parents continue to take a lot of risks on their behalf and to make sure that they are able to receive an education.
I have students who come from places like Helmand and Kunar Province and Bamiyan and other parts of the country where access to education for young girls is quite rare. And yet, they - it's the parents and, oftentimes, the father figure who takes the risk and tells the daughter that, you go and receive this education in Kabul and I will take care of the - whether it's the back biting, the bad mouthing or even often risks and threats from the Taliban, to make sure that their education is possible.
MARTIN: How can others help?
BASIJ RASIKH: A lot of ways. I'll have to say, very quickly, that there are 66 million girls in the world who are waiting to be sent to school. A lot of those girls live in Afghanistan today. We cannot move forward, we cannot rely on a sustainable development in Afghanistan unless we equipped young people with quality education. I mean, we - here in the Aspen Ideas Festival, we talk about incorporating technology into education and so many other ways.
But talk about a country where people have just their geographic problem, their security problems, they cannot receive an education. So ways to help, always financial contributions matter, but think about educators, they can always come to Afghanistan to teach students. People who can mentor students, get interested, sponsor their education and so on. So there are ways to help.
MARTIN: Thanks so much for joining us. Shabana Basij-Rasikh is cofounder of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan. She was kind enough to join us during our special broadcast from the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Shabana Basij-Rasikh, thank you so much for joining us. A continued success in your work.
BASIJ RASIKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.