(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series: Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal.)
On May 8, in Kabul, the city I call home, murderers bombed a girls’ high school and killed more than 80 people, the majority of them female students who were members of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority. This is a sentence that, even now, I have difficulty writing.
But having written it, let me write this:
In the hours after the attack, teenage boys from across Kabul lined the halls of our hospitals, sitting quietly and patiently on floors as they waited to donate blood. In the days and weeks after the attack, wounded girls spoke words of defiance from their hospital beds, vowing that they would not be deterred from their studies as their classmates, girls who had escaped physical injury, announced their intentions to continue their schooling.
And on a hillside outside of Kabul, in a cemetery overlooking our city, Hazara parents came to bury their daughters. They laid their girls inside the earth, and on the ground these grieving mothers and fathers wrote a single word in white chalk.
The word was “education.”
I tell you this because I want you to understand: when I say that education, particularly girls’ education, is the lever that will raise Afghanistan above extremism and into a peaceful and prosperous future, I’m not speaking of a belief I hold alone.
In 2019, a nationwide survey of the Afghan people found 87 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “women should have equal opportunities like men in education.” COVID stood in the way of follow-up surveys this year and last, but I’ve no doubt that this 87 percent figure has grown; indeed, of the roughly 9 million children in school in Afghanistan today, as many as 3.5 million – roughly 40 percent – are girls. The profundity of these statistics comes into full view when you realize that 20 years ago today, the number of Afghan girls formally attending school was precisely zero.
I was one of those girls who, officially, didn’t exist. I grew up in Kabul in the 1990s and the early 2000s, at a time when girls’ education had been declared illegal and girls’ schools had been closed down. So, I, along with many other girls, attended secret schools across our city. A network of women – extraordinarily brave women – opened their homes to us, and we packed tight into their living rooms as these women became our teachers, giving us the education we’d been denied, giving us hope.
Education transforms lives and societies. It’s transformed my life and it’s transformed my Afghan society these past 20 years. Today, I operate the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA). It is my country’s first and only private boarding school for girls, and we enroll nearly 100 students. The story I’m about to tell you is one that I hope you’ll remember as we move into what will unquestionably be a long and difficult summer.
During SOLA’s most recent admissions season, a man came to visit our Kabul campus. This man, who must remain nameless, is a prominent member of his village – a village where one of our students lives. She’s been with us for several years, and not only is she the only SOLA girl who lives in the village; she’s the only formally educated girl who lives there. When she’s home from school, she offers tutoring to her sisters and to other girls who want to learn. She’s become well-known in the village for doing this.
She’s the reason this man came to see us.
He told us that he has several daughters. One of them is married. Another, who’s not quite 18, is already engaged. None of his daughters have received formal education. But he asked if there was a way for at least one of his younger daughters to apply to SOLA – because if she applied, and if she was accepted, he knew that she’d come home and teach her sisters. He knew she’d come home and teach other girls.
He told us that it would take just one of his daughters to make this difference in her community. Just one daughter.
Just one girl.
One girl who will step into an already-spinning virtuous circle, a circle of educated women teaching girls who grow to become educated women who teach even more girls. It’s a circle that Afghan women have spent the past 20 years setting into motion, standing unafraid on the shoulders of those giants who opened their living rooms for us when we were children.
Memory is a powerful thing. The word written in white chalk on a hillside overlooking my city just a few weeks ago has washed away – and yet its promise endures. We Afghans are and always have been the authors of our own future, one in which women can get married later in life, have smaller and healthier families, earn higher salaries, and invest the majority of their income back into their families.
Education makes this future possible. Education is the intervention that helps eradicate poverty, overcome extremism, and plant the seeds of new beginnings deep into soil where they can never be uprooted.
Summer is here, and autumn is coming. September 11 brings with it a change of seasons. For all of us in Afghanistan, it will be a time of challenge. But I will never lose sight of those seeds. I am only one of the many Afghan women and men, young and old, who have worked and sacrificed to place those seeds all across our country. And in the changing of the seasons, we will watch them grow.