I founded a girls’ school in Afghanistan. Don’t let our stories disappear as they have before

Girls sit in a classroom with bouquets of flowers on empty desks as a tribute to those killed in the brutal May 8 bombing of the Syed Al-Shahda girls school, in Kabul on May 16. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
Girls sit in a classroom with bouquets of flowers on empty desks as a tribute to those killed in the brutal May 8 bombing of the Syed Al-Shahda girls school, in Kabul on May 16. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

In mid-July, in a rural part of Afghanistan, two sisters made a promise.

They’d just arrived home for their semester break from their boarding school in Kabul, and their grandmother came to see them, carrying scythes. The Taliban, resurgent, was drawing closer to their village. This woman told her granddaughters to take these curved blades, and she told them that if Taliban fighters ever came to the house, the girls must be swift. There would be no time to hesitate.

If the Taliban comes into this house, she said, use these scythes to kill yourselves.

The girls promised that they would.

I know these girls well. They’re two of nearly 100 students at the School of Leadership, Afghanistan — SOLA, for short. The first and only boarding school for Afghan girls, the school I founded.

I thought about these girls as I burned their academic records a couple of weeks ago. Their records, and the records of every other girl who’s ever called SOLA home. I held them in my hands, and I dropped them in the flames, and the papers turned to ashes, and my students disappeared.

I am an Afghan woman, and these are the burdens we Afghan women take upon ourselves to protect our girls from a future in which they are forced to become teenage “wives” of Taliban fighters or in which their families may face ferocious retribution if it is ever discovered that they dared to educate their daughters.

I am an Afghan woman, and I’m the inheritor of a tradition of bravery that long predates the last 20 years of international engagement in my country — and that reveals itself in the courage of those two sisters from the countryside who held scythes in their hands before they returned to SOLA in Kabul last month, passing through Taliban checkpoints on insecure roads. Why? Because they and their family know that educated girls are the ones who will pry the fingers of extremism from Afghanistan’s throat.

I know it too. And today, I write with a simple request: Don’t look away from Afghan girls.

A pair of blood-spattered pink sneakers on a city mural symbolizes a school bombing in May, in Kabul on June 26. (Pamela Constable/TWP)
A pair of blood-spattered pink sneakers on a city mural symbolizes a school bombing in May, in Kabul on June 26. (Pamela Constable/TWP)

You see them, and other Afghan women, now. You see us as the news cycle spins and the American-led evacuation from Kabul exhausts itself in a Möbius strip of success and moral disaster. And your continued attention is what I ask of you in the months to come — because you have the power to hold the Taliban to account. You are the one, if I may borrow a military term, with the over-the-horizon capacity to help Afghan women and girls fight for the rights we’ve worked so hard to earn. And to do that you need go no further than your laptop or phone screen, and you need give no more than your attention.

We have disappeared from your sight before. I was one of the disappeared. I was a child in Kabul in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the world’s attention drifted away and the Taliban outlawed girls’ education and burned our academic records and closed our schools. In those days, a network of secret schools opened across our city, run by some of the bravest women I will ever know, and I was just one of the many girls who packed into these women’s homes and living rooms as they quite literally risked their lives to educate us.

The Taliban wanted my generation of girls to be disappeared and forgotten. They burned our records so that we wouldn’t exist, and the West looked away from those fires as the threat of global terrorism metastasized. If this new generation of girls must disappear — if their records now must burn — I will be here to see them rise out of the ashes, and I ask you to side with us, at a distance.

I know there are many in the United States who feel frustrated. I’ve spoken with some of you personally. You’ve asked what you can do for Afghanistan. You can invest in Afghan girls. You can invest in their education and potential, and you can, with your attention, not just honor their bravery but entrench the foundations of generational change.

Security experts will tell you that the United States and its allies are safer now from terrorism than before 9/11. Unquestionably this is true in the immediate term, and equally unquestionable is the fact that if you want to keep the terrorist threat at bay, you must now commit yourself to depriving extremists of their ability to operate within our Afghan society.

Educated girls grow to become educated women, and educated women will not allow their children to become terrorists. The secret to a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan is no secret at all: It is educated girls.

Don’t look away from Afghanistan. I ask nothing of you that I don’t demand of myself. My SOLA community and I are among the tremendously fortunate who have departed Afghanistan for other lands — Rwanda, in our case. From this place of safety, I see those in my country who feel so terribly unsafe. They cannot leave, and you cannot look away.

The Taliban says of women: “We must show them respect.” I say, show me that you mean what you say. Show the girls in Kabul and in the provinces. Show their families.

Show the world.

We are watching you.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh is the co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan.

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