By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — Shabana Basij-Rasikh was six years old when the Taliban took power in her native Afghanistan, banning women and girls from attending school or obtaining an education.
So, soon after, Shabana became “Shaban,” dressing as a boy in order to attend a secret school where one teacher covertly tutored 140 girls.
Now a Middlebury College sophomore, Basij-Rasikh on Jan. 8 spoke about Afghanistan — and her own remarkable story — to a standing-room-only crowd at the Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol.
In her far-ranging discussion, the 18-year-old touched on her own memories of the Taliban, gave firsthand accounts of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and recounted challenges she sees her country facing in the coming years.
But Basij-Rasikh started at the beginning. In her case, that was at the secret school in Kabul — a city once called the “Paris of Asia,” Basij-Rasikh said, in a time she never knew.
“To me that does not seem possible,” she said. “It is a dirty city. It is a ruined city.”
Basij-Rasikh was born and raised in Afghanistan’s capital. It was there that her parents took the risk of their lives — and her own — by deciding to send her and her sisters to one of the secret schools that cropped up during the Taliban’s seven-year rule.
Every day Basij-Rasikh walked 45 minutes each way to a home where girls came and went at all hours of the day, pretending to be family members. They trickled in and out so as not to attract attention by arriving or leaving en masse.
“Shaban” dressed as a boy in order to escape detection, and to escort her burka-clad sister to the home. (Under Taliban rule, women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male family member as an escort.) They disguised their schoolbooks as groceries, pretending to run errands as they shuttled back and forth from their makeshift classroom.
She lived with the fear that her school would be discovered, her teacher beheaded, and her family sought out and punished for educating their daughters.
But her parents insisted, Basij-Rasikh said, on educating their daughters.
They did so, she believes, because both of her parents valued learning immensely. Each had been in the first generation of their own families to obtain educations — and her grandfather had decided to educate Basij-Rasikh’s mother and aunts at the cost of alienating the rest of his family.
No records were kept of her time at the secret school, no grades given or report cards sent home. But she remembered her father telling her, “There is one thing no one can ever steal from you, and that is what is inside your brain.”
AFTER THE TALIBAN
Everything changed — or seemed to, at least — in 2001, when the United States military invaded Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan welcomed the international community with open arms,” Basij-Rasikh remembered. She recalled men and women dancing in the streets and weeping with joy. Thousands of women, she said, burned their burkas.
And Basij-Rasikh went to school, at long last, as a proper student. She was allowed to wear a uniform, and carry books in public instead of disguising her schoolwork as groceries. Many teachers, instead of just the one who’d led her “secret school,” taught her classes. She also began to learn English, memorizing 100 words a day.
It was then that she truly fell in love with school, Basij-Rasikh remembered. When she learned about an exchange program run by the U.S. State Department that was sending students to the United States, she jumped at the chance. Out of 2,500 Afghan students who applied for the program, Basij-Rasikh was one of 40 — 20 boys and 20 girls — selected to go abroad.
She was 15 years old at the time, and ended up in Wisconsin for a year, where she attended high school as a senior. It was there that she was first struck by the concept of volunteerism, she said.
“I was lucky enough to take that back with me to Afghanistan as a gift,” she said.
But she also began to think of her country in an entirely new way.
“For me to come to the U.S. as a student from Afghanistan, and to have the opportunity to see my country and in a way myself from a different perspective … it created a lot of passion in me toward Afghanistan,” she said. “Every day, the more I thought of my experiences, the more I fell in love with Afghanistan.”
Basij-Rasikh returned to Afghanistan for a year after studying in Wisconsin, and then applied to Middlebury College. (She hadn’t heard of Vermont before, let alone Middlebury, but was directed to the school by someone in the youth exchange program in which she’d participated.)
Now a sophomore, Basij-Rasikh is concentrating at Middlebury on women and gender studies and middle eastern studies. She said it is easy, here — with 24-hour access to the Internet and electricity — to forget about what life is like in Afghanistan, but frequent trips home provide a reminder of the challenges her country faces.
Every morning, Basij-Rasikh said, she wakes up to read the news from her homeland.
“I’m here in Middlebury, but my mind and my heart are always in Afghanistan,” she said.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Now, on frequent trips back to the country, Basij-Rasikh said she is reminded of all of the work that remains to be done in Afghanistan. She spoke last week about violence against women in the country — 99 percent of incidents are believed to go unreported — and corruption in the government. Bribery runs rampant, she said.
In spite of that, she said that communities long for change, and that if given materials, Afghans are able and willing to improve their situations. She spoke about working last summer to drill water wells in the rural areas, and recounted the passionate way that communities embraced these projects.
She also shared a story from her family’s ancestral village, where until recently she said the lack of a proper school meant that students were forced to do their lessons in the dirt. Small children, she said, collected rocks and stones to use while learning to count.
“They would do that with so much passion,” she said. “I don’t have the words to describe how that felt to see that.”
Basij-Rasikh has since helped the village build a six-room schoolhouse, and hopes to raise enough money to build a girls’ high school in the village.
This, she said, gets at one of the most pressing needs in Afghanistan today: education.
“One thing that the Taliban and the regimes before that were able to do was to kill literacy in Afghanistan, and they did it so well that it will take generations for us to gain that back,” she said. “It will take even longer if we don’t take it so seriously, and if we don’t work toward it.”
She said that returning to her country is difficult, in large part because of the obvious, frustrating problems she confronts. Walking the streets of Kabul can be terrifying, she said, when “you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
And traveling, as she must when she goes home, to Pakistan to renew her U.S. visa, Basij-Rasikh said that she is often afraid. The U.S. stamp in her passport is a dangerous emblem in a time when, just recently, men were killed for being suspected of spying for the United States.
At times, the problems seem insurmountable. The Taliban still attacks girls who are going to school, spraying acid in their faces. She sees the rich getting richer — often off of opium money — while the poor grow poorer.
But there are signs of hope. Women make up roughly 50 percent of the student body at Kabul’s university — and they’re at the top of the class. Organizations have sprung up to combat violence against women and provide much-needed supplies to Afghan communities.
“There are great changes,” Basij-Rasikh said, the sort of changes that allow her to be in the United States today. “It’s just … our needs are so basic.”
In the short term, Basij-Rasikh said that Afghanistan needs more U.S. and international troops to help secure the country’s borders. The Taliban is still strong in certain regions, she said, and Afghans are forced to help the Taliban in some places because the U.S. military cannot offer adequate protection to civilians.
But in the long run, she said she hopes that more than just military aid pours into her country. She worried that there is relatively little focus on education in comparison to security and military spending.
“We all know this,” she said. “It’s not about giving Afghans fish. It should be about teaching them how to fish.”
But Basij-Rasikh also said that the responsibility for improving Afghanistan should fall to Afghans.
“I expect, I guess, more from our Afghans,” she said, “especially those who are here … and have the skills to go back and help.”
Young Afghans like herself, she went on, can’t afford to leave the country — even if it means leaving for a better life elsewhere.
“It’s our responsibility,” she said. “It’s this generation that should put their country ahead of their personal life, so that generations ahead of us or the ones after us will have a better life.”
In trips back to Afghanistan, where Basij-Rasikh hopes one day to be a politician, she is doing just that.
Basij-Rasikh’s speech at the Lawrence Library was sponsored by the One-World Library Project, a Bristol-based group dedicated to enlightening the community about world cultures.