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Fay Magazine: Summer 2022

An Unquenchable Fire: Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s Fight to Educate Afghan Girls

Erin Ash Sullivan
Education is not something that Shabana Basij-Rasikh takes for granted. Education is a right, a solemn responsibility—and a critical component to the healthy functioning of a nation.
On June 11, the Fay community welcomed Shabana Basij-Rasikh as Fay’s 2022 Commencement speaker. Shabana is a 2011 magna cum laude graduate of Middlebury College with a degree in International Studies and Women & Gender Studies, and she holds a Master in Public Policy degree from Oxford University. In 2016, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from SOAS University of London; in 2019, she received an honorary doctorate from Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including being named as one of CNN International's Leading Women of 2014, one of National Geographic's 2014 Emerging Explorers, and a member of the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in the social entrepreneurship sector. In 2018, she was awarded the Malalai Medal, one of Afghanistan's highest national honors, for her work in promoting girls' access to education. She is the founder and president of School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), the only girls’ boarding school in Afghanistan. She is also the sister-in-law of Fay ninth grader Mo Amin ’22 and graciously accepted the School’s invitation to speak to Fay’s ninth graders at this year’s Commencement ceremony.
Shabana’s Commencement remarks focused on the importance of education not only for individual growth but for a nation to survive and thrive. She has dedicated her life to ensuring that Afghan girls have access to the education they need in order to be capable, independent, and contributing members of society. Her passion for this project stems from her own experiences.
Shabana was born in Afghanistan in 1990, shortly before the Taliban took control of her country in 1996. She attended secret schools for the first years of her education, and it wasn’t until the Taliban fell in 2001 that she was able to attend school openly. This experience has been one of the fundamental drivers in her life: her appreciation for the struggles and sacrifices that her family endured to ensure that she was educated has inspired her to fight for the education of girls in her home country—and for the soul of the country itself.  As she noted in a Washington Post article from September 1, 2021, “Educated girls are the ones who will pry the fingers of extremism from Afghanistan’s throat.”
During high school, Shabana participated in a one-year student exchange program in the United States, and she entered Middlebury College as a freshman in 2008. That was also the year that the idea for SOLA was born. In its first iteration, SOLA was a nonprofit that secured scholarships for high-performing Afghan girls. But in time, Shabana became concerned that SOLA’s mission was counterproductive: sending girls abroad for their education was only contributing to the country’s “brain drain.” So in 2016, SOLA opened its doors as a boarding school in Kabul and enrolled its first class of sixth graders. The school grew over time, ultimately reaching an enrollment of nearly 100 students from provinces across Afghanistan.
In the spring of 2021, Shabana and SOLA’s leadership team learned that the United States would be withdrawing from Afghanistan, and they became concerned that a return to Taliban rule would mean an end to the hard-won freedom of girls and women in that country. When the Taliban took Kabul in August, the SOLA girls evacuated to Rwanda. Thanks to the support of the Rwandan government and a team of dedicated volunteers, the school has since reformed and resumed in Kigali; SOLA is now welcoming applications from girls who are part of the Afghan diaspora, and some SOLA girls have transitioned to boarding schools overseas.
Shabana continues to fight locally and globally for the future of Afghan girls. Even while she is expanding the SOLA program on the Kigali campus, she speaks passionately on the world stage about the challenges faced by Afghan girls and women in her home country. In March, the Taliban reneged on their promise to allow girls to attend school and decreed that girls could not be educated past the sixth grade. In mid-May, the Taliban reinstated the burka for all women outdoors. Shabana wrote in the Washington Post about her concern not only for the girls and women being “suffocated” by this new decree but by the implications for all of Afghan society: “What happens to a society,” she wrote, “when its boys are brought up to understand that it is normal to control the women in their lives? What happens to a society when those boys become men? What happens to the progress that this society’s women have made?”
Shabana speaks—and acts—because she knows that the girls and women of Afghanistan have lost their voice again, and she refuses to allow the world’s attention to drift away. As she wrote in late August, “Do not avert your eyes from Afghanistan. Don’t let your attention wander as the weeks pass. See those girls, and in doing so you will hold those holding power over them to account. My commitment to the women and girls of my country, just like my commitment to my students, is unwavering. They are the fires that will never go out.”

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