The First College for Rural Afghan Girls Could Be a Game Changer

A new campaign aims to raise funds for a women’s college specializing in engineering, nursing, and midwifery.

(Photo: Razia's Ray of Hope/Facebook)

Jun 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Shortly before Afghan native Razia Jan opened a school for girls in the Deh Sabz district of Afghanistan, a group of local men asked her to make it a boys’ school. Boys were the “backbone” of Afghanistan, they said.

“Well, you know, the women are the eyesight of Afghanistan,” Jan told the men in a new documentary on the founding of her school. “And unfortunately, you all are blind.”

What Tomorrow Brings, produced by Principle Pictures and in postproduction, follows the progress of the K–12 Zabuli Education Center opened by Jan in 2008. Located northeast of Kabul, it was originally a boys’ school—a gift to the community from the Afghan king of the 1930s, Amir Amanullah Khan—but over time had been nearly destroyed under the oppressive rule of the Taliban.

Now the film’s director, Beth Murphy, is traveling the country with a work-in-progress version of the documentary to support Jan’s next project: building the first women’s college in rural Afghanistan.

Because of the remote location they live in, high tuition costs, and a culture that doesn’t prioritize women’s education, most of the girls who are graduating from the school won’t be able to go to college, according to Jan’s nonprofit foundation, Razia’s Ray of Hope. So Principle Pictures is fund-raising on Indiegogo to open an all-girls technical college that will specialize in nursing, midwifery, and engineering. The campaign has raised $30,000 of its $115,000 goal, and the funds will go toward infrastructure, school supplies, and teacher salaries.

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(Photo: Razia's Ray of Hope/Facebook)

Jan, 71, initially came to the United States in 1970 for college but stayed after her home country was invaded by the Soviets. Settling in Duxbury, Massachusetts, she started a tailoring business. Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, she began organizing relief campaigns for the victims, first responders, and soldiers and children in Afghanistan. Jan and other volunteers sent homemade blankets to rescuers at ground zero and care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan and collected more than 30,000 boxes of shoes for Afghan children. After a trip home to Afghanistan in 2002, she was inspired to create the foundation and set about raising funds to rebuild the school in Deh Sabz as a girls school. Support came from the new government in Afghanistan as well as Afghan author Khaled Hosseini, who wrote the novel The Kite Runner.

Since filming began in 2009, Murphy says she has witnessed remarkable changes made possible by education.

Illiterate fathers who were leery about sending their daughters into the classroom now express pride that their little girls can help them read letters—even in English, she told TakePart. The leading men in the community, the village elders who once refused to look Razia in the eye, now praise her efforts and support the schools growth. Girls who once were silent about forced engagements and early marriages are now speaking up and finding ways to negotiate more time in school. I can’t help but imagine what will be possible for them with college education, a job, and an income.

Women’s rights in Afghanistan haven’t always been an uphill battle. Before the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the Taliban takeover in the 1990s, Afghan women enjoyed greater independence, and many had thriving careers. In Kabul, for example, 50 percent of government workers were women, 70 percent were schoolteachers, and 40 percent were doctors, according to U.N. Women.

That progress came to a halt under the Taliban’s rule, which has set women’s progress back by decades. Girls’ education was forbidden. So was riding a bike, laughing loudly, wearing bright colors, or showing your face in public. Women and girls were also forced into early and arranged marriages, often suffering physical and sexual abuse. A number of Afghani women have set themselves on fire trying to escape from forced marriages. Even after the Taliban was toppled in December 2001, and despite the drafting of a new constitution in 2004 that gave men and women equal rights, the Taliban’s conservative values and control continue to persist.

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“It is heartbreaking to see the way these terrorists treat...women, Jan told CNN in 2012, describing how the Taliban had thrown acid in the faces of girls, poisoned the water, and tossed grenades into schools to deter girls from getting an education. “In their eyes, a woman is an object that they can control. They are scared that when these girls get an education, they will become aware of their rights as women and as a human being.