Dr Sakena Yacoobi was at work when armed Taliban men raided her school in Afghanistan, but instead of quaking in her boots, she greeted them, defended her work educating girls and served the men tea. They left without violence.
Talking to The Independent newspaper, she said:
“Of course I thought they were going to kill me, but I wasn’t scared. With the help of God I stayed calm and defended myself, telling them how the Quran states a woman’s right to an equal education.”
Having lived in the US as a refugee, Yacoobi returned to her home country while the Taliban was still occupying Afghanistan and had banned girls from receiving education.
She wanted to help “counteract ignorance” and provide girls, women and underprivileged children with a better chance in life. With that ambition in mind, she set up the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1996 to train teachers to work in a number of underground girls’ schools.
During its twenty years working at a grassroots level, AIL has directly and indirectly benefited more than 12 million people and after the fall of the Taliban, the AIL’s new curriculum was copied by state-run institutes across the country.
Yacoobi has five honorary doctorates and has won several prestigious education awards, including this year’s Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education. Last year she won the WISE Prize for Education Laureate and in 2013 she was the recipient of the Opus Prize. She is both a Kravis Prize and Gruber Prize awardee, she is a Skoll Social Entrepreneur, Schwab Social Entrepreneur, Ashoka fellow and has been nominated as one of 1,000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She also serves on several panels and boards and is the co-founder and vice-president of Creating Hope International (CHI) which has created private facilities including four schools, a hospital in Herat and a radio station.
AILwas the first organization to offer human rights and leadership training to Afghan women. It now serves 400,000 women and children each year through its training programmes, educational learning centres, schools, and clinics in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What she has achieved has involved much courage, vision and determination. “One day I want to have a television channel and open a university,” she told The Independent. “There is so much more we can do.
“I have dedicated my life to promoting the importance of education because I really believe it is the only way to bring peace,” said Dr Yacoobi.
“Conflict is the result of ignorance. International governments spend billions of dollars on weapons – just think what that money could do if it went towards education.”
However, Yacoobi still has a mountain to climb with Unicef estimating that 2.4 million girls in Afghanistan receive no education. On top of that, women and girls face attacks, such as acid throwing by insurgents against women learning. According to a recent UN report, only 12 per cent of Afghan women are literate.
Of the future, Yacoobi said in an interview at the Berkley Centre, Georgetown University in Washington DC, that she is optimistic. Praising the Afghan people for having acquired a taste for democracy and transforming their lives through education, she added:
“This will not stop. The seeds have been planted and they will grow. Most importantly, I see a future in Afghanistan where women and men work together as equals, where no one’s human rights are abused, where there is harmony and justice for all. Already there are communities of men and women where this is happening. Inshallah, in the future, those will be the only communities in Afghanistan.”