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The Fight for the First Women’s College in Rural Afghanistan

The fight for young girls in the Middle East to receive an education is still going strong. Thanks to the efforts of female leaders like Malala Yousafzai, women in the Middle East are now joining forces, hoping to grant young girls an education they wouldn’t have received otherwise.

Raiza Jana is one of these women- working hard to open the first women’s college in rural Afghanistan, bringing education to a village that has been accustomed to arrange marriages and little to no education for women.

Founder of the Ray of Hope Foundation, Raiza Jana successfully funded a K – 12 school in rural Afghanistan for girls in the district of Deh’Subz, Raiza. The attendees have come a long way since the opening of their school, but with no female college in the village, the hope for these young girls to continue their education seemed slim until now.

Raiza hopes to build the first female college in rural Afghanistan with the help of her Indiegogo campaign and the documentary “What Tomorrow Brings” which follows these young girls as they learn to read and write, something their traditional fathers have now learned to accept and love.

Beth Murphy, producer and director of “What Tomorrow Brings,” spoke to Fembot about the Indiegogo campaign and the young girls striving to escape the reality of arranged marriages by instead receiving a higher education. Murphy also spoke to us about the many accomplishments of the crew and Razia, and what this college could mean to the people of Afghanistan.

FEMBOT: Your campaign for the first ever college in Afghanistan is quite a bold, but much needed, move. It seems founder Raiza Jan is a fearless woman- could you tell us more about Razia and how she hopes to accomplish her goal?

MURPHY: Our Indiegogo campaign is focused on building the first college for girls in rural Afghanistan. There are colleges and universities where women and men can go in the cities—but there are no opportunities for higher education in rural villages, where the majority of Afghans live. This month Razia bought land adjacent to the current K-12 girls’ school she started, and it is on that land the college will be built. Now, through the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, we are helping her to raise the $115k needed to build the college.

Eight years ago I met the most inspiring woman—Razia Jan. Razia grew up in southern Afghanistan. She lived on her grandfather’s farm in a big house, with her entire extended family. She remembers carefree afternoons picnicking in his orchards, surrounded by apple, peach and pomegranate trees – all the generations sitting, talking and laughing – the men and women together. She remembers people listening to what she had to say—just as much as they did her brother.

She wasn’t considered a second-class citizen because she was a girl. It was a time in Afghanistan when the capitol city, Kabul, was considered the Paris of the Middle East, a place where the finest fashions were available and wonderful seamstresses trained in France and Italy made beautiful dresses for women—dresses that did not cover their ankles or faces or hair.

In the 1970s she decided to travel to America to study. Then the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and Razia stayed in the United States. After a decade of civil war, the Russians left and the Taliban swept into the power vacuum they left behind. Razia wrote to people she knew, asking if she should come home. No, they said, don’t even think of coming back. The Taliban will kill you. Afghanistan was no place for an educated woman. No place for someone raising a young son as a single mother. Razia stayed in the United States for 38 years.

She became a role model for her child and for the community. She opened her own business – a tailoring business that united her skills as an artist and businesswoman. She worked hard.   Then, she worked harder. It is in her DNA to not only embrace the ideal of service, but also to act on it. In time, she became president of her local Rotary club in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

Razia had a chance to see what freedom is like, to see what opportunity is like—both in Afghanistan and in the United States. She also knows what being oppressed is like, when her homeland was invaded and the people she loved endangered for nothing more than wanting to live their lives as they always had.

When the U.S. invasion kicked the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, people were free again to laugh in public, to listen to music, to cut their hair in the style they chose, to read books other than the Koran. Women were free again to leave the house, to go to school. Imagine a world in which women are not allowed to work outside the home, go to any school, leave the house without a close male relative, appear in photographs, or even be seen through the windows of their homes. Think of your mothers and sisters, wives and daughters living that way. Think of yourself living that way.

Razia turned her attention back home to Afghanistan, now devastated by decades of war and changed beyond recognition. When she returned to Kabul for the first time in nearly four decades, she visited an orphanage.  There she saw first-hand the disparity between the way the boys and girls were treated.  The Taliban were gone, but deeply entrenched patriarchal values remained that keep girls from having equal rights, realizing their potential, and daring even to dream.

Razia made the decision then to turn on the light—one light that would change everything. She committed to opening a school—from grades kindergarten to 12—in a village that had never had a girls’ school before—Deh’Subz, where the Mujahedeen had helped drive out the Taliban. In the beginning, the men in the village resisted. “You need to change your mind and make this a boys’ school. The boys are the backbone of Afghanistan, and they need this,” village elders told her. Razia’s response was clear and swift, “Do you know what the women are? The eyesight of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, you all are blind.”

We are committed to building a women’s two-year college in this same village. Building a college in a rural Afghan village is a first – it has never been done. But it should be; Razia’s K-12 school is already the only free private school in the country, but this effort is NOT just about sending the Zabuli girls to college. There’s more at stake here. It’s about having a living demonstration of the power of knowledge to change everything. This college can be catalyst for amazing change for the better… for the country…for the world.

 

FEMBOT: I think I can speak for many when I say that not much is really known about the educational system in rural Afghanistan, especially for girls. Can you explain to us how the education system works there for both genders?

MURPHY: The school year begins in March and ends in November. Schools—public and private—are overseen by the Ministry of Education. Afghanistan is such a poor country, yet students in public schools must buy their books. It’s often cost-prohibitive, forcing students to share books. Public schools are also bursting at the seams, and when you drive around the country, no matter what time it is during the day, you’ll see students in uniform toting their backpacks going to and from school. That’s because most schools handle the overcrowding by having students in two or three hour shifts.

Razia’s current school, the Zabuli Education Center, started with 109 students. Today there are more than 500 girls going to school in grades kindergarten through 12.  In the years I have been filming there, grades K though 5 have doubled in size.  Girls in Deh’Subz are learning to read and write for the very first time. But their education goes far beyond the classroom. Girls are learning what it means to become a woman in Afghanistan, how they can use their voice.

This is the only free private school in the country. It’s a unique place where books and supplies are provided for the girls and they take a full course load with qualified teachers. It’s hard to find qualified teachers—especially female teachers—in the country. The interruption of girls’ education under the Taliban wreaked havoc on the training of women for professional careers. Most of the teachers at the Zabuli Education Center studied outside the country when they lived as refugees in Iran and Pakistan.

 

FEMBOT: I read somewhere in your site that illiterate fathers, who weren’t too fond of their daughters going to school, are now proud their daughters are receiving a better education than they probably ever did. What does this tell you about the community’s acceptance of higher education for women? Do you think times are changing?

MURPHY: As Yalda’s story reveals, the men in the village are proud of their girls, but things change slowly in this deeply traditional, conservative society. The same girls who can now read and write and do math and use computers are still forced into engagements in their early teens to cousins and strangers. Early marriage is the number one reason girls leave school in Afghanistan. But school also gives these girls something to fight for.

Before Zabuli opened, the girls in Deh’Subz married who they were told, when they were told, as their mothers had before them. They could look forward to nothing but a life of domestic drudgery. There was no reason not to marry at 14 or 16. Now, they have a reason: Let me wait until I graduate from high school.

Families are saying yes, sometimes driven by a mother who may be speaking up in the household for the very first time, and wants something more for her daughter. These are conversations that never happened before. Now, these girls live in homes where people talk about more than one possibility for a daughter’s future.

Slowly, this community is already chipping away at attitudes that keep girls out of the classroom across Afghanistan, and I want to help further that journey.  This is about having a positive impact on generation after generation. Quite literally changing the future.

There’s a saying in Dari, “Each drops, when it flows, it makes a river.” An investment in girls’ education grows that river. In a society as conservative as Deh’Subz, the lives of these girls are not going to change until the people around them—their mothers and fathers and husbands—also change. But the changes in these girls that education brings—the confidence and independence—are changing the people around them in a profound way. Think about the power of that – the changes in these girls are changing the people around them.

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FEMBOT: This campaign was inspired by your recent work with the documentary “What Tomorrow Brings”. Can you tell us more about the film?

MURPHY: Deh’Subz is a dusty, war-torn village in Afghanistan, home to Mujahadeen, who fought the Taliban, but defends a deeply patriarchal way of life. It is also the unlikely home of the Zabuli School, the first all-girls’ school in the village. Zabuli is the setting for “What Tomorrow Brings”, a vérité feature documentary thattraces the interconnected stories of students, teachers, village elders, parents, and school founder Razia Jan.

The story plays out at a critical moment in Afghanistan’s history, when international security forces are pulling out and the Taliban is increasingly exerting its power. The narrative structure is built on the voice of four intergenerational women, while the school itself and surrounding community, especially the village Mayor and elders, play strong supporting roles.

Razia, as school founder, is fiercely protective of “her” girls, becoming the trusted narrator in the film. Nazima is a young teacher who is adept at bridging the gap between old traditions and the freedom that education brings, yet cannot fully escape the pressures of patriarchy herself. Pashtana, a rambunctious, bright 15-year-old, nearly succumbs to the pressures she faces in a life riddled with poverty. Rihala is the mayor’s daughter, and because of the education she has received, has the confidence to stand up to her family when they try to marry her off to a man nearly four times her age. Through observational scenes, interviews and voice over, we come to understand the realities of the world these women are trying to change for themselves and the uncertainties of what tomorrow brings.

 

FEMBOT: Do you have an exact date as to when “What Tomorrow Brings” will be released? Where should we expect to see it?

MURPHY: The film will premiere at film festivals soon! Fall or early 2016, to be exact- once it does, it will play the festival circuit for about a year and then air on PBS.

 

FEMBOT: Of course the girls of Zabuli Education Center are definitely the heart of this mission. They seem to be bright students who definitely deserve to continue their education. Do you have any interesting stories about these inspiring girls?

MURPHY: Yalda is a smart, artistic 17-year-old who is writing a book about the impact of forced marriage and wants to be a teacher. She scored highest on a special exam at the end of 10th grade, and skipped 11th. Now, Yalda is a senior, and just months away from graduation.

What’s next for her? Her parents forced her into an engagement two years ago to a young man she doesn’t want to marry.

“Life is like a guitar,” she told me. “It can play happy notes and sad notes, and you have to listen to both.”

Although Yalda was unable to convince her parents to let her out of this engagement, she was able to secure another victory: Her parents and her future in-laws have agreed that she can go to college before the wedding.

 

FEMBOT: How can someone help with your campaign, aside from donating to your Indiegogo, which of course, we still recommend everyone should do?

MURPHY: The most important thing is for people to share the campaign with their friends. We want to build momentum with the wider public — and social media endorsements by the thousands are critical for that to happen.

 

Follow the “What Tomorrow Brings” Twitter and Facebook pages, and find out more about this project through their website buildaschooltoday.com

Have a thought about this piece? We encourage your civil communication with our writers. Tweet us at @fembotmag or reach out to us on our Facebook page.

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Written by Natalie Rivera

Managing Editor Natalie Rivera is a proud feminist and freelance writer who enjoys writing anything pop culture-oriented, as long as it's women-positive. She earned her journalism degree in 2013 and has since then written for a variety of trending websites. Her heroes consist of David Bowie and Annie Clark, who are changing the way the world perceives sexual and gender fluidity. Follow her at @ByNatalieRivera.

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