In Afghanistan, women and girls are being erased

I was standing in the arrivals hall at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda this month, waiting for an Afghan girl and thinking about the days that brought the two of us here.

March 23rd marks one year since the Taliban decreed that Afghan girls don’t need to be educated past sixth grade. One year since they closed the doors of schools in the faces of an estimated 3 million girls, though of course these girls have been out of school much longer than that, really ever since the Taliban took power.

In 2001, when the Taliban’s first regime fell, there was officially not a single girl in elementary school and only a handful in secondary school — that’s in the entire nation of Afghanistan. Less than 20 years later, we had 3.6 million girls enrolled in primary and secondary school, and around 90,000 in higher education.

All of it is gone. Live in silence now behind the walls of your home, the Taliban say to women and girls. Live a ghost life.

In that airport terminal, I was waiting for a 12-year-old girl, a new student at SOLA, my Afghan girls’ boarding school. She was en route to Rwanda from an Afghan community in exile, one of many such girls who have arrived in March thanks to a continuing partnership between SOLA (or School of Leadership Afghanistan) and the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

This girl, like every Afghan girl who refuses to give up on her education, had two choices: go overseas or go underground. Become a refugee from Afghanistan or, effectively, become a criminal within Afghanistan. Pursue the limited educational opportunities open to refugees, or pursue them in our homeland and hope the Taliban never find out.

In Kabul and across Afghanistan, the secret schools are opening again, with girls coming to learn from women who may never have been teachers before, but who now quite literally risk their lives to beat the darkness back.

“To bring a sense of humanity,” one of these teachers said to me, “we share our knowledge.”

I studied with women just like her, when I was a girl attending secret schools in the 1990s under the Taliban. We, who were girls then, are women now, and we are the inheritors of bravery that we pass on to today’s girls. A generational sisterhood holding flames, each of us a light in the dark, and a signal to each other.

And then there she was. My new student, a girl walking through the airport terminal with her female IOM chaperone, and pulling her suitcase on wheels. This suitcase.

The suitcase of one of Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s new students. (Shabana Basij-Rasikh) (Photo by Shabana Basij-Rasikh)

It can feel distant to a global audience, the struggle of Afghan girls. It can be easy for policymakers and private citizens to want to look elsewhere, or to want to focus on the perceived political gains or risks of reminding voters of the horror of Kabul’s fall in August 2021. Or to simply imagine that the problem is too intractable, the need too great, the damage too deep, the Taliban simply too immune to the pressure of global public protest.

That night, after coming home from the airport, I spoke with this girl’s mother. I told her that her daughter is with us at SOLA now, that she arrived safely and that we’ll take care of her.

This Afghan mother, this woman who sent her 12-year-old child to a school in a nation neither of them had ever seen — this woman asked me: “What can I do for other Afghan girls now? Tell me how I can help these girls be where my daughter is.”

When our new students arrive at SOLA’s campus, they quarantine for several days for health screenings. When quarantine ends and they come out to meet their sister students, they find me and they ask, they always ask: “When does the next admissions season begin? What can we do to help more girls come here?”

It’s with pride that I say that SOLA’s new admissions season is opening today. It’s with sadness too, and with anger. We’re one of a vanishingly small number of options available for Afghan girls.

I look to the future in Afghanistan and see three paths: the Taliban can maintain the unforgivable status quo of vanished women and no girls’ education past 6th grade. They can roll back these restrictions and let women be citizens whose contributions to society, which, measured purely economically, is worth billions of dollars to Afghanistan’s economy. Or they can bring my country back to the 1990s, when girls education was outlawed.

I can’t foretell the future, but I can easily anticipate girls’ education being used as leverage for international legitimacy. Basic women’s rights, used as barter — and perhaps not just by the Taliban. It horrifies me.

But hope lives. It lives in Afghan mothers. It lives in the women leading the secret schools. It lives in an Afghan girl pulling her suitcase through a foreign airport.

And it lives in this Afghan girl too — a different girl, at a different airport.

One of Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s new students asleep on an airport floor, with a novel beside her. (Shabana Basij-Rasikh) (Photo by Shabana Basij-Rasikh)

I took this picture in Qatar, back in the summer of 2021, at the midpoint of SOLA’s departure from Afghanistan and its arrival in Rwanda.

It’s one of my students, a girl asleep on an airport floor, with a novel beside her.

This is what we left home to protect. A girl with the right to read, and to learn, and to have the freedom to grow into an educated woman who will teach other girls.

A girl who chooses to think for herself is a force like none other on Earth. She is a member of a global sisterhood of the brightest light.

And so today and every day, as Afghans and as women, we claim the dignity no darkness can eclipse.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, is co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, women and girls are being erased