Opinion: The world can’t allow Afghan girls to vanish from classrooms again

Sometimes 20 years can fall away like nothing. Sometimes time telescopes into a vivid memory of a flash of red above a sea of blue.

On March 23, 2002, I was 12 years old, living in Kabul, walking into an all-girls public school for the first time in my life. The Taliban — the extremists who from 1996 to 2001 had essentially outlawed girls’ education — was gone, its regime fallen, its edicts swept away. It was the first day of the new school year.

But I remember the fear in our school courtyard that day. How it flowed around me in deep blue tides. Our school uniform was a black outfit and a white headscarf, but so many girls had chosen to cover up with the blue burqa because there were rumors that Taliban members were out there, watching, looking for girls in uniforms so they could throw acid in our faces.

That was our fear, that the Taliban members would find us and hurt us if they knew who we were. And I remember our school principal in the midst of that blue sea, standing tall and proud and composed. She wore a long skirt with a blazer, and an elegant headscarf, and bright red lipstick.

I was afraid for her. “They’ll get her first,” I thought.

They didn’t. The school year continued, and as it did, I started to understand the lesson she was teaching us that day. “You don’t have to be afraid,” she was saying. “You’re free. Times have changed. You can go back to what we used to call normal.”

And as spring became summer and summer became fall, I watched that blue tide start to turn. I watched it drain away from our courtyard, and I watched what was hidden beneath come into view: black outfits, and white headscarves, and faces, and smiles.

We were Afghan girls. And we were back.

I thought about our principal last week, on March 23, 2022, when the Taliban broke its promise to fellow Afghans and to the entire world and announced it wouldn’t allow girls to attend school beyond sixth grade.

That day, I saw girls standing in their black outfits and white headscarves. I saw them outside their school gates in tears. I heard the Taliban mouth the excuses: There are not enough female teachers available, the school uniform for girls is not appropriately modest, the time just isn’t right.

The hypocrisy of it. The hypocrisy of a regime that sends its own daughters overseas for schooling while making Afghanistan the only nation to bar half its population from receiving an education.

Educated girls become educated women, and educated women are independent women. This is what members of the Taliban know. This is what they accept in their own families. This is what they fear in their own nation.

This cannot happen again. I will do my part. My Afghan girls’ school, now in Rwanda, is recruiting new students from our nation’s refugee diaspora. We intend to enroll the largest class in our history this fall. We will educate Afghan girls, and nothing and no one will ever deter us.

To Afghan men, I say: This is your moment. Don’t let your wives and daughters and sisters protest alone. Don’t let armed men tell you what their futures must look like. To other Muslim nations, I say: This is your moment. Raise your voices. Follow the example of Qatar and Turkey. Call out the Taliban’s un-Islamic decree, and in the strongest terms.

And to the rest of the world, I say: Do not give the Taliban the legitimacy it seeks until it first seeks its legitimacy from Afghan women.

Here we stand, tall, proud and unafraid. This is the lesson we learned as girls.

This is the lesson we teach to the girls to come.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, is co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan.
Opinion: The world can’t allow Afghan girls to vanish from classrooms again