One Young Woman's Fight to Educate Afghan Girls

Some girls walk as much as two hours each way, their plastic sandals slapping against dirt trails and fields lining the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Others take even longer when puddles impede their progress. Their common destination is one of the scattered houses enlisted to double as classrooms in Godah, an isolated village in Wardak province. The homes are part of a network of six schools for girls in Wardak and Nangarhar provinces that educate more than 2,800 students, the product of the efforts of a 28-year-old Afghan woman named Sadiqa Basiri Saleem. To bring education to rural areas like this one—where many girls may not know a single woman who can read—Saleem has battled widespread illiteracy and daunting cultural obstacles for the past seven years, setting up schools to change the educational landscape, one child at a time.

After her own hopes of being a gynecologist were dashed because the Taliban forced her Afghan-run university in Pakistan to close, Saleem pooled her personal savings with that of a few other women, founding the only girl's school in Godah. Since then the system has expanded, and her organization, the Oruj Learning Center, has started five more, though not without difficulty. It's been less than a decade since Taliban rule blocked girls from attending school, and threats, both real and imagined, continue. Though the Taliban has its strongest hold on southern provinces like Kandahar, the communities that house Saleem's six schools in eastern Afghanistan still feel its influence. A male teacher from one of her schools was stopped on the street by a stranger last year and asked if he teaches at a girl's school. He quickly answered no, fearing for his life, and waited each day for further incident—but nothing more came of the conversation. "The sense is that [any of us] could be targeted at any time," says Saleem, who is currently working toward a B.A. in international relations at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, spending her summer and winter breaks overseeing the schools in Afghanistan and checking in on operations from afar the rest of the year.

In 2005, the tents that housed the Godah school burned to the ground. Though no one claimed responsibility for the midnight act of arson, and many think the tents were a target because they were to be a voting site in the first parliamentary elections (not because they housed a girls' school), the attack still left some parents anxious about sending their daughters to school the next day. Most girls continued to show up, though, studying in the hot summer sun while waiting on new tents. Then two years ago, as reports of violence across Afghanistan increased, the schools moved once again from tents that had replaced the burnt ones to the school's current locations: several volunteered private homes. "Just in case," Saleem says, noting that the move would make the girls safer since culturally it would be less acceptable for a stranger to enter a private home than a public space.

The Godah school isn't the only one concerned for its safety. The Afghanistan Ministry of Education says that 458 government schools (mostly in the south) are closed due to threats of violence, leaving 400,000 boys and girls at home. In the 2008 school year alone—from March 2008 to March 2009—22 students and teachers were injured (including a November acid attack that left 15 girls and teachers scarred in Kandahar province). Another 33 were killed, a ministry spokesperson reports.

Building schools and ensuring that girls can attend has been one of the main objectives of the Afghani government and the nations that have contributed to its reconstruction, yet the guerrilla warfare that has sprung up in southern and eastern Afghanistan has proved a formidable obstacle.

Still, many of the girls continue to show up, encouraged by mothers, sisters and cousins who never had any chance to learn basic reading and writing themselves. In the aftermath of the tent burning, the girls studied in the shade for the next month, taking frequent breaks to drink from a nearby stream. "In 2005 things weren't that bad. People were much more hopeful about the future," explains Shirin Sahani, 33, then a graduate student from Georgetown who visited the Godah school postfire while she interned with the Oruj Learning Center.

For Saleem, seeing the girls wash off the charred chairs and search through the ashes for usable supplies reminded her why she had worked to set up the school in the first place. "Bringing education to girls was based on the needs I witnessed, not a drive to bring about social change," she says.

It hasn't been easy. Saleem remembers sitting with Godah community members three years before the fire, trying to persuade them to educate their daughters. Though many families had resisted the idea, she had two advantages: the support of her father, a respected elder in the community, and her own educational background. Saleem's early education at an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and later at a Pakistani private college had equipped her with the skills that would make her good money as a tutor.

But it is her religious faith that is her best weapon in trying to convince reluctant parents that the education of girls is sanctioned by the Qur'an. "The first word revealed to the Prophet is iqra: read," she says as part of her argument. "By educating girls you are honoring God. It's right there in the Qur'an." She attributes her drive to make these schools succeed to her deep religious faith too. "I believe from my religion that if you have good intentions and keep it up, the time will come to do your good deed."

At the Godah school most students cluster for three hours a day, every day but Friday, learning to read, write and do math, and studying geography and the Islamic texts—standard curriculum in Afghanistan. The oldest students, fifth and sixth graders, also take on biology and history. Though it would be more culturally accepted to have female teachers for Godah's older students, the Oruj Learning Center continues to employ mostly men since literate, educated women are hard to find in Afghanistan.

Despite all the hurdles, the students and their teachers continue to come. Even though the schools are now registered with the Afghanistan Ministry of Education, Saleem's international donors (whose funds are often funneled through the Washington, D.C.-based Advocacy Project) foot the bill for most of the teachers' salaries, and the school continues to recycle many old school supplies while waiting on new ones from the government. Saleem hopes to be able to hand her current crop of schools over to the government and move on to founding new ones, but for now she thinks she needs to continue her work there. "If I leave, I don't see anyone else who will step up," she says.

This summer, diploma in hand, Saleem plans on returning to Afghanistan to oversee the schools and plan her next steps with her husband, a doctor who has supported Saleem's own quest for education from their home in Afghanistan. The news is not good back home, she says. Earlier this month prominent Afghani women's rights activist Sitara Achikzai was murdered outside her home in Kandahar province, and the Taliban claimed responsibility. "I'm not concerned for me but I am concerned for my girls, the students. Really, for everyone," she says. But she won't quit, not as long as the students show up.