from secret school to afghanistan's future
Running your own leadership college at the age of 24 would be pretty impressive by any standards. But Shabana Basij-Rasikh, who set up the women's college in Kabul in Afghanistan, has been driven by her own daunting early experiences.
The young founder of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, speaking at the Global Education and Skills Conference in Dubai, says she wants to start by emphasising the positive. She has plans to expand her college to teach 340 young women the skills that will help them lead a modern, outward-looking Afghanistan.
The college provides a crash course in civic leadership - with lessons in government and international relations, visiting courts, attending round-table debates, listening to current affairs radio programmes and using Skype to talk to overseas experts. It wants to break down the ethnic tensions within the country, recruiting from different regions and teaching in English as a neutral language. There are also practical skills, such as learning to drive a car, from which many women would otherwise be excluded.
But there's no escaping the grim childhood experiences that made education such a passion. As a girl living in Kabul under the Taliban, Ms Basij-Rasikh wasn't allowed to go to school. But her parents were determined that she should not miss out and sent her to one of the secret, underground schools operating in the city. Here women who had been teachers covertly taught lessons, using private houses as classrooms. It wasn't a game. She said they heard stories of secret schools being raided and the teachers being beheaded in front of their pupils.
Ms Basij-Rasikh says she went to school by a different route and time each day, to avoid setting any pattern. It could take an hour to walk there. Books would be disguised as groceries and male relations would act as lookouts. She says that even as children they were fully aware of the seriousness of the risks.
"It was horrible, horrible, this terror. I was compelled to mature faster. I lost the years of fun."
And it was even more traumatic for the parents of these hidden scholars.
"Parents sent us to school every day knowing that we might not come back."
It seemed impossibly and irrevocably bleak, she says.
"I felt I could be caught any day by the Taliban driving around. And I didn't see any future. As a woman, I wasn't going to be able to work. There were times when I told my parents that I didn't want to go to school any more. But they told me that in life you could lose everything. But there was one thing that no-one could ever take away from you - an education."
It's also worth remembering how recent this was. It was only 13 years ago that she was living in a society where girls' education, not to mention television and music, were out of bounds. While in the UK we were still moaning about the Millennium Dome, she was living a life closer to Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis. The only contact with the outside word had been listening to music on black-market Bollywood tapes and listening to the BBC World Service. A BBC soap opera called New Home, New Life, was their biggest entertainment.
Sense of freedom
After the defeat of the Taliban, she was able to go openly to school for the first time.
"There was an overwhelming sense of freedom," she said. Wearing a school uniform was a great liberation and source of pride.
"Everyone had a huge desire for school. There was a hunger for learning."
She turned out to be very good at school and was put on an exchange programme, which brought her to Wisconsin in the rural US Midwest. This was another sharp change of culture and she was innocently asked there whether she personally knew Osama Bin Laden. She was shocked by the stereotypical views and lack of understanding of ordinary life in Afghanistan - and decided that she wanted to do something to bridge that gap. And after later attending college in the US, she went back to Afghanistan to build a school.
Without education, she says she could have been married off at a young age, illiterate all her life, like many women in Afghanistan. After founding a school, she turned to her current project in Kabul, the School of Leadership, Afghanistan - or Sola. She wants the girls who attend here to become the next generation of her country's leaders, the opposite of her own isolated, frightened years of learning.
"Working in education is like planting date trees. It takes 50 years to bear fruit. You have to be patient and you might never get to see it."
Million dollar teacher
Ms Basij-Rasikh's story provided a gritty contrast to the dazzling high-rises of Dubai, where the Global Education and Skills Conference was held this week. Organised by Unesco and the Varkey Gems Foundation, this international gathering looked at ways of widening access to education and improving its quality.
Former-US president, Bill Clinton, now with more of a gravelly southern drawl, shared his own impressions. He said he saw how improvement in education across South America was closing the gap in the inequality of incomes - while at the same time that gap was getting wider in the United States. And he looked back on being a young governor in Arkansas and the feeling that he had failed because he had never managed to find how to replicate and spread the success of the best schools. Looking back across four decades, he said that he had concluded that it was the quality of teachers that mattered above all else.
Appropriately, the conference saw the launch by Sunny Varkey, founder of the GEMS Varkey Foundation, of a $1m (£610,000) international prize for an "exceptional teacher". Former UK prime minister Tony Blair called for leading economies to co-operate to support education in developing countries.
Andreas Schleicher, of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, spoke of the need for teachers to have regular access to training. And Anant Agarwal, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and head of the edX online education platform, predicted that digital content would soon be fully integrated into everyday secondary school classes. Irina Bokova, director general of Unesco, in the cavernous hall of the world's tallest hotel, reminded the conference of the tens of millions of children around the world without any education at all.