A Free School for Girls Rises Above War and Prejudice

Razia Jan’s school in Afghanistan serves 500 girls—and she has a women’s college in the works.

Razia Jan with her students. (Photo: Courtesy Zabuli Education Center)

Oct 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Mona Gable is a freelance writer who covers feminism, health, culture, and international issues.

This profile is part of TakePart’s “I Am Malala” series, telling the stories of people around the world who are following in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai by breaking down cultural and political barriers and championing children’s and girls’ education. The series coincides with the October release of the documentary He Named Me Malala, produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

In July 2007, Razia Jan watched as 30 village elders broke ground on a free private school for girls in rural Afghanistan. Although Jan was the reason they were there, the elders—all deeply religious, conservative men—ignored the Afghan woman standing beside them. They had wanted a school for boys, not for girls.

Eight years later, the Zabuli Education Center, in the remote area north of Kabul, serves nearly 500 girls in kindergarten through 12th grade. It is Jan’s dream come true, against daunting odds of prejudice, poverty, and war. While the village men had predicted a girls’ school would fail, it now has their fierce support.

“The first year when I opened the school, I’d have a meeting with these men,” the 71-year-old humanitarian tells TakePart at a Los Angeles screening of What Tomorrow Brings, a documentary about the Zabuli Education Center by filmmaker Beth Murphy. “They’d never look at me directly. If they’d had the chance, they would have choked me to death and thrown me in the garbage.”

But as the years passed, the men started to see the benefits of their daughters’ education and how it helped their families; the girls could sign documents for their fathers and teach their older brothers and sisters to read.

Now, Jan says, laughing, “They want to name the village after me.”

(Photo: Courtesy Zabuli Education Center)

Jan, who fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in 1979, founded the school in the shadow of 9/11. At the time, she was running a successful tailoring business in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where she was one of the only Afghans in the community. She was besieged with questions about Afghanistan and her experience. Jan started speaking at synagogues and churches about her native country and sending care packages home to orphans in the region.

After several decades, she returned to Afghanistan.

“I was so lucky to get the privilege of getting an education,” she says. “No one was trying to stop me. Because of 30 years of war, things have changed tremendously. The last straw was the Taliban took all the rights that women and girls deserve. When I went there, the girls were mistreated and didn’t have a say. I wanted to help. That’s why I really focused on building a school. They’d never had a girls’ school.”

Jan raised funds for her organization, Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation, from a variety of sources, including a devoted group of such celebrities as Sarah Silverman and Martha Plimpton. In 2012, the Zabuli Education Center drew international fame when Jan was named a finalist for the CNN Hero award. Afterward, donations poured in.

Still, those early years were hard for the girls. “They had to get used to coming to school and being a student,” she recalls. “Many students had to face the problem of enduring a lot of physical and emotional harm from their fathers and brothers and uncles.”

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Jan gently pushed the boundaries to protect her students. Child marriage is a common practice in the region, and many girls are pressured to marry at as young as 11 years old. When they did get engaged, the students came to Jan for help. In many cases, she persuaded parents to let their daughters finish school. “Eighty-five percent of them have been there from the very beginning,” she says.

As they grew more confident, the girls also began to fight for their right to education. “One of the girls in 10th grade got engaged,” Jan says. “Her best friends—seven of them—decided to skip a year with her so that would give her leverage with her in-laws.”

In December, the girls will be part of the school’s first graduation ceremony. In March 2016, they’ll attend the Razia Jan Technical College, the first college for women in rural Afghanistan. The college will offer programs in nursing and midwifery, with a health care clinic on-site where the girls will train.

It’s all part of Jan’s goal to create a bright future for women and girls in Afghanistan: “I think the growth of these girls—their hardships, what the families go through, where they started, and where they are now—it is so positive and heartwarming to see them growing up as young women and to be a success in their families.”