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SHEEMA KHAN

Striving to change the lives of Afghan women Add to ...

In the 2009 documentary Class Dismissed, one is struck by the courage of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai (then 11) and her father, Ziauddin, as they oppose the Taliban’s “scorched girls’ schools” policy. Today, the world stands with Malala after she was shot in October by barbarians threatened by the mind of a girl. Yet, despite the dismal state of female education in the region, many are striving against insurmountable odds to change the status quo.

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Consider Sadiqa Basiri, a 32-year-old Afghan student completing her master’s degree in communications at the University of Ottawa.

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Sadiqa and her parents fled their village, Godah, settling in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, for 18 years. There, her father impressed on her the importance of education as a religious duty, along with the responsibility to help others. She took the message to heart.

From Pakistan, she tried to establish a female literacy centre in Godah. But those attempts were thwarted by civil war and, later, by the Taliban. Undeterred, she sent her annual savings for the purchase of school supplies.

In Peshawar, Sadiqa’s dreams of pursuing medicine were shattered when extremists closed her Afghan school. Instead, she studied computer science and used her IT skills to help the Afghan Women’s Network. In 2002, Sadiqa returned to Godah and, with her father’s help, opened a literacy centre in the family home.

But first she had to counteract false propaganda spread by the Taliban. Sadiqa met village mothers, emphasizing the importance of knowledge in Islam. She pointed to two of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives – Khadija, a businesswoman, and Ayesha, a scholar, and asked: How could Muslims follow in their illustrious footsteps if they remained ignorant? This was a game-changer for many.

On the first day, 75 students arrived. Sadiqa stepped in as teacher and principal. Within the next year, a formal school was built; requests for new schools came from neighbouring villages. By then, Sadiqa had established the Oruj Learning Centre, a charitable organization devoted to women’s education. Two years later, the centre was overseeing six schools with 2,700 students.

Sadiqa’s jihad for education led to a four-year scholarship at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Even as a student, she continued to oversee the OLC schools, raising $100,000 in the process. In her senior year, Sadiqa, along with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was honoured by the Vital Voices Global Partnership. Her tireless work across civilizations garnered the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award.

After graduating, Sadiqa returned to Afghanistan and established a centre to combat violence against women (serving 14,000 Afghan women) and the country’s first women’s community college. This summer, the college’s first group of graduates all found employment. Sadiqa’s next goal is to transform the college into a four-year degree-granting program. It won’t be easy as international funds dwindle in anticipation of the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014.

In the short term, Sadiqa plans to secure computers and Internet access to provide distance learning between students and Canadian volunteer educators. The college also launched a pen pal program to connect its students with students abroad. The project will promote mutual understanding and find ways to fund the $120 monthly tuition.

Parents with education naturally support education for girls, according to Sadiqa, pointing to both her father and Ziauddin Yousafzai as examples. Her ardent supporters also include her husband and brothers.

Her message to Canadians: “I am extremely disappointed when the religion that supports female education is used as an argument against girls’ education. There is not a single word in the Koran that promotes the Taliban’s doctrine. Instead, they are using it to betray Muslims in order to further political agendas. Malala’s resilience, in the face of the Taliban’s brutality and their ban on education, confirms that, no matter what happens, girls and their parents in the East realize that education is the only way for moving their countries forward.”

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