There's no going back for girls, says Afghan campaigner

4th April 2014 at 01:00
She believes electorate will not allow progress to be derailed

Shabana Basij-Rasikh was just six years old when the Taliban came to power in 1996 and banned girls' education in Afghanistan. She had to walk for two hours each day to attend a secret school, risking her own life and those of her family and teachers.

As her country goes to the polls to elect a new president tomorrow, against a background of terrorist attacks and with Nato forces about to pull out, many fear for Afghanistan's future. But Ms Basij-Rasikh, now a campaigner who has co-founded a school in capital city Kabul, is optimistic about her country and its education system, which has grown to cater for millions of girls since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.

"I don't think they [the Taliban] have any future in Afghan government and politics," she told TES. "I am so optimistic that our people as a nation will not let that happen or bring anybody into our government that will stop girls' education. We will not go back to the Taliban.

"Thirteen years ago, when they were in power, we had zero TV stations. Today we have more than 75 privately owned TV stations.

"Our freedom of press was ranked number one in the region, better than India. This exposure alone has allowed people to want more, more than what the Taliban gives to people. If I knew that there was a little bit of danger I would be the first one speaking up."

Ms Basij-Rasikh has an important stake in a Taliban-free future. Her boarding school, Sola (School of Leadership Afghanistan), offers international education to girls from all provinces and ethnicities, in the hope that they will become leaders.

"My goal is to make sure that more people get an education so that they can go on to become doctors, politicians, servants of their society and social change-makers," the 24-year-old said.

But the situation is still perilous for some families. "One of my students' fathers is risking his life every single day to educate his daughter. If people are taking that level of risk, you know that the country is ready to let their daughters go to school."

Ms Basij-Rasikh admits that there is variation in the level of girls' education between regions in Afghanistan, but is confident that this will "even out".

There have even been suggestions that the Taliban has changed. In 2011, Afghanistan's education minister Farooq Wardak told TES about the transformation in attitudes towards education he felt had taken place in the country over the previous decade.

"It is attitudinal change, it is behavioural change, it is cultural change," he said then. "What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls' education.

"I hope, inshallah, soon there will be a peaceful negotiation, a meaningful negotiation with our own opposition.and that will not compromise at all the basic human rights."

His comments were swiftly contested by female MPs in Afghanistan, who warned that girls' schools in many parts of the country were still closed.

And although Ms Basij-Rasikh shares the minister's views about a general change in attitudes towards education, she does not agree that talks with the Taliban should take place. "People understand that they no longer have the foundation or the credibility to be able to come back into power, so why should we even bother?" she said.

Her work inevitably draws comparisons with fellow education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, who was shot after defying the Taliban in neighbouring Pakistan by going to school. "Clearly, she is a brave girl," Ms Basij-Rasikh said. "She has got great potential, she is young."

But she believes that the way Malala's story has been portrayed is an example of how her region is misrepresented. "The good coming from our part of the world is individualised so you get one person getting all the attention," she said. "And the bad is generalised.

"The incredible progress we have made in the past 12 years is completely unreported by the Western media. All the news that is coming out of Afghanistan is negative: the only thing you heard about is a young girl being married off to a 50-year-old man, a girl being burned, a woman being beaten to death.

"You never hear about the amazing soccer players we have who are women, you never hear about the female pilots we have, you never hear about the brave and strong female police officers."

Ms Basij-Rasikh, who went on to receive a high school education in the US, said she could understand the West's pessimism about Afghanistan. "When you know that hundreds of your military people have died in this country, obviously, naturally, you will ask what did you do this for? What is the future in this country? Was it even worth it?" she said.

"But there is hope. Never in the history of Afghanistan have so many students - boys and girls - been in school."

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