Following its return to power in Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban has rolled back the freedoms of women and girls through rules and regulations designed to violate their rights.

"We are deeply concerned with the escalating restrictions to fundamental freedoms, threats against human rights defenders, and curtailment of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan," CIVICUS and Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization said in a statement in June. "Since the Taliban assumed power, women and girls in Afghanistan are increasingly restricted in their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and even movement. It has become the only country in the world to prohibit girls’ education."

Gender equality is a particular challenge in Afghanistan and the country ranks last out of 156 countries as far as measuring economic opportunity available to women compared to men.

The School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) is an Afghan-led boarding school for Afghan girls, and the first and only of its kind in the country. Here its founder Shabana Basij-Rasikh reflects on her own experience growing up as a girl in Afghanistan and why she’s committed to girls’ education.

I was born in Afghanistan in 1990, and I grew up in Kabul, our capital. My mother and father, both of whom are well-educated, made education a priority for all of their children, sons and daughters alike — but in 1996, the Taliban came to power. One of their first acts was to close girls’ schools and make it illegal for girls to receive an education. My parents decided to send me and my sister to secret schools in Kabul: these were schools that Afghan women held inside their homes, at extraordinary personal risk to themselves. This was the way of things until 2001, when the Taliban regime fell and girls no longer had to live invisible lives.

I suppose any understanding of who I am, and why I will never stop doing what I do, must begin with these early years of my life. I was one of millions of Afghan girls who were made to vanish. I won’t allow that to happen again. This is because hope matters to me, and it fuels everything I do. I hold the hope of a different path for Afghanistan. With SOLA, my team and I work to create a place where Afghan girls can find their own hopes for the futures they’ll build for themselves and their families, and our country. The hope for tomorrow is what drives us, and me, today.

When I became involved in girls' education in Afghanistan depends on how we define the word “involved.” If we mean “involved professionally,” then the answer would begin in 2008 with the creation of SOLA; I was 18 then, I’m 32 now, and SOLA has been my entire professional life.

If we mean “involved personally,” then the answer would be as long as I can remember. I have never and will never forget how it felt to attend those secret schools in Kabul. I have never and will never forget how it felt to sit alongside other girls as some of the bravest women I’ve ever known very literally risked their lives to educate us. Quite simply, I’ve invested my life in girls’ education because what was allowed to happen to Afghan women and girls then, cannot be allowed to happen to them now.

I do this because education plays an absolutely profound role. Education, and especially girls’ education, changes all aspects of a society for the better. Period.

Educated women marry later in life, have fewer and healthier children, earn higher incomes, and invest a significant percentage of their earnings back into their families. Educated women raise daughters who themselves become educated women. They are the vanguards of a virtuous circle that can transform any nation.

SOLA began in 2008, while I was still a freshman at Middlebury College in the United States. In our early years, we worked to secure overseas scholarships for outstanding Afghan students. However, we were getting these students too late in their education to make a concrete difference. Also, we came to realize that we were contributing to a brain drain from my country. This is why, in 2016, SOLA altered course and became Afghanistan’s first and only girls’ boarding school when we enrolled our first class of sixth grade girls.

We chose to begin with sixth grade because early adolescence is a critical time in a girl’s life: cognitively, physically, and socially. We knew that by giving each of our students the opportunity to focus on her studies, we’d greatly increase the chances that she’d successfully complete her schooling. Girls across my country face numerous barriers to education including security risks, a lack of female teachers, access to a physical school building, and simply having access to a bathroom. We chose to adopt the boarding school model to mitigate those very risks, while also encouraging the development of bonds of sisterhood between girls from different ethnic groups and geographic backgrounds from across the country.

And it worked. In 2016, we were a school of 24 sixth graders. In 2021, we had grown to become a school of nearly 100 girls in grades pre-sixth to 11th from 28 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces… and all of these girls were with us when we evacuated Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.

In March, the Taliban forbade any Afghan girl from attending school beyond sixth grade. My concerns begin there, certainly — but that really is only the beginning.

It may surprise many people to know that the greatest challenge that has prevented Afghan girls from being educated is the nationwide shortage of female teachers. Many Afghan families, particularly those in more conservative areas, are supportive of girls’ education, but once their daughters reach adolescence, they will only permit women to teach them. If there are no female teachers available, these girls will see their education come to an end.

With this in mind, consider that in 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, fewer than 20% of the teachers are women — and this was the case prior to the Taliban’s return. Even if the Taliban reverse their decree and allow girls to return to school, this shortage of female teachers will remain, and until the international community works with the Afghan people to address and overcome it, Afghan girls will continue to lose access to the classroom.

Since August 2021, when the SOLA community arrived in Rwanda, up through this very moment, I have repeated a message to the world: Don’t look away from Afghanistan. Don’t look away from our women and girls. Your ongoing attention is more powerful than you may realize.

I said earlier that we create a virtuous circle through education: educated girls become educated women, who raise and teach girls, who become women who raise and teach even more girls. But this circle is a fragile one — all it takes to turn virtuous into vicious is to end girls’ access to education. This is what’s happening in my homeland right now, and left unchecked, its consequences will be generational.

The world looked away from Afghanistan in 1996, when the Taliban came to power for the first time and silenced the voices of women. It’s 2022, the Taliban are back, and Afghan women are not silent now. They are in the streets, protesting, demanding their rights, risking their freedom and their lives to do so.

The world cannot look away from them again.

This story was lightly edited for clarity.

You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

Growing Up, I Had To Attend School in Secret — I Don’t Want Afghan Girls Today To Have To Do the Same

By Shabana Basij-Rasikh