I had the honor of speaking with Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a longtime friend and one of the truly exceptional women shaping our world today. Shabana is the president and co-founder of SOLA, School of Leadership Afghanistan, the country’s first and only boarding school for girls. Through her tireless advocacy and steadfast leadership, she has significantly advanced women’s education in Afghanistan and worldwide. Shabana’s personal journey is nothing short of remarkable. She was born and raised in Kabul and grew up under the Taliban, a time when, like now, girls were denied access to education. In her early years, Shabana attended illegal secret schools in Afghanistan and then finished high school in the United States through the State Department's Youth Exchange Studies program. From there, Shabana enrolled at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Oxford University.
During Shabana’s formative years in Afghanistan, she quite literally risked her life for her education by attending secret schools. During our discussion, Shabana described her decision as necessary, saying, "Afghan women understand the greater risk is not risking their lives, but it is not educating the young generation of women." At the time, Shabana viewed these secret schools as the only “normal” way for girls to be educated in her country. It wasn’t until later in life, while attending school in the United States that she realized how unfair this reality was for Afghan girls.
During her time at Middlebury College, Shabana came to understand that, while her U.S. peers didn’t take their education for granted, they never had to question their access and right to it. What I admire about Shabana is that this realization didn’t anger her, but it inspired her. She said, "I found that very thing to be so beautiful, especially for young women, to be in a society where girls can say, "Of course, I'm going to go to school." This discovery planted the seed for the foundation of SOLA. It is the future that Shabana envisions for Afghanistan, where girls never need to question their right to an education.
Shabana’s journey to providing education to the girls of Afghanistan has not been easy. She created the first iteration of SOLA at the end of her freshman year of college. It was a scholarship program for Afghan girls to attend school in the United States. After much consideration, Shabana worried about SOLA being a vehicle for brain drain in Afghanistan. With the hope of keeping the best and brightest in the country, she pivoted and adopted the boarding school model. Now, not only does SOLA provide an excellent education, but it also provides a home for the students, mitigating the risks inherent in traveling to and from school daily, which Shabana was all too familiar with.
SOLA first accepted applicants in 2016, and since then the applicant pool has grown each year. The growth demonstrates the desire within Afghanistan to create a new path for the next generation of girls. But this path, unfortunately, still has its challenges. Shabana tells us that girls are constantly facing political and security uncertainties.
Most recently, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 forced the shutdown of schools for girls across the country. Through her heroic efforts, Shabana and the SOLA staff managed to evacuate more than 200 students, staff, and family members from Afghanistan at the height of the crisis and relocate the school to Rwanda. Currently, SOLA continues to operate from its Rwanda campus and aims to welcome its largest class in the school’s history this fall, recruiting from Afghanistan’s refugee diaspora around the globe. In her most recent article for the Washington Post, she said, “We will educate Afghan girls, and nothing and no one will ever deter us.”
Shabana remains relentless in her efforts to provide education to the girls of Afghanistan. For her work, she has earned multiple international leadership accolades and regularly champions women’s education as a Washington Post contributing columnist, a TED speaker, and a featured guest in other media outlets. On a personal note, Shabana continues to amaze me with her resilience and determination. If you are also moved by Shabana’s story, please consider donating to SOLA and the future education of Afghan girls.