Symposium addresses a culture of oppression

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Basij-Rasikh on the effort to educate Afghan women

“What would you give up for your education?” SLU Interim President Bill Kauffman posed the daunting question to an audience of approximately 300 students that were gathered to hear Atlas Keynote speaker, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, on April 3.

Kauffman’s preliminary introduction set the stage for Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s talk about her foundation, School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA).  For the majority of SLU students, attending school never provoked death threats or social alienation from family or friends like it did for Basij-Rasikh.

Connecting to Kauffman’s initial question, Basij-Rasikh opened her speech with a story regarding a young girl who attends SOLA, whose father was the target of an unsuccessful roadside bomb detonation simply because the girl attended school.  The girl continued to attend SOLA even though her father’s life was in jeopardy.  Basij-Rasikh recounted her childhood education in Kabul, Afghanistan during the Taliban years.  She noted that her parents encouraged their daughters to attend school even though the education of women was illegal.  According to Basij-Rasikh, she and her sisters walked different routes to school each day, leaving at different times so as to not arouse suspicion from neighbors.

A former teacher taught Basij-Rasikh and other girls in the safety of her house, where the girls would sit on the living room floor during lessons.  For Basij-Rasikh, the lengthy process of hiding her schooling often brought doubts concerning the usefulness of an education; she asked her father “What’s the point?” who replied, “No one can take away our education. It’s the biggest investment in our future.”

Heeding her parent’s advice, Basij-Rasikh participated in a high-school exchange in rural Wisconsin.  Following graduation, she attended Middlebury College in Vermont.  During her time in America, Basij-Rasikh studied the lack of accessible education for girls in

Afghanistan. She noted the 90 percent rural illiteracy rate and looked for ways to help the most people possible.  Following the age-old adage, “Educate a man, you educate a person. Educate a woman, you educate a generation,” Basij-Rasikh opened the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan.  “In order for me to help, I needed to be an educator,” she said.

Since opening the school in 2000, the program has gone from having only four girls to having 35. The girls are required to speak English and sign an honor code pledging to remain respectful and tolerant of all ethnicities, an important step for a nation with strong tribal affiliations.

SOLA’s main goal centers around educating the girls and obtaining scholarship money in order for the girls to attend high school and college in the United States, with the intent that they will apply their education to a variety of social problems back in Afghanistan.  SOLA students are paired with a Skype mentor from the U.S. who follows their progress in school and acts as an advocate for each girl in her schooling. Basij-Rasikh remarked that the Skype mentors empower the girls simply by allocating time to talk, especially since their culture places little emphasis on women.  Basij-Rasikh hopes to expand the school and have it internationally accredited in the next four to five years.

Basij-Rasikh encouraged the audience to “spread a sense of moral obligations…find meaning and purpose in your life, find out what you want to do.” She offered the audience numerous ways to get involved with SOLA, including fundraising, becoming a Skype mentor and “raising friends.” Basij-Rasikh stated that the best way to help was to spread the word about SOLA and make more people aware of the school and its mission.