Sakena Yacoobi began the work that has become her mission in 1992. That’s when she set up a school for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Her school grew quickly—from 300 to 15,000 students in that first year—and so did her commitment to educating women and girls in Afghanistan, where the brutal Taliban denied them all schooling. Back in her own country, Yacoobi conducted classes underground, risking raids, flogging, and imprisonment. Nearly two decades on, she has educated more than 350,000 people.
Though the Taliban were driven from power, Yacoobi thinks the gender inequality ingrained in Afghan culture still threatens the country. As an Afghan Muslim born in Herat and educated in the United States, she’s uniquely suited to push for the type of change that connects traditional Afghan society with well-meaning reformers and aid workers from the West. During the 17 years I’ve worked to promote literacy for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, I’ve been amazed by Yacoobi’s focus. She understands that—although we drop bombs, surge troops, build roads, provide electricity and computers—unless girls are educated, lasting progress won’t be made.
Of course, the coming year will be important. As U.S. and nato troops look to withdraw from the region, Yacoobi worries about a backslide in the fragile progress that’s been made. She’s once again speaking out against the Taliban; she’s insistent that the hard work of changing Afghan society remains largely undone. All the while, Yacoobi’s effort reminds me of the Persian proverb that says “When it is dark, you can see the stars.”