A First:  Building a College for Rural Afghan Women

A First: Building a College for Rural Afghan Women

I think my mission is to make people understand that all Muslims are not murderers and terrorists. We are good people. — Razia Jan

On September 11, 2005, I met Razia Jan under an enormous white party tent in Boston Common. The atmosphere was festive despite the dark anniversary, as Razia joined Susan Retik and Patti Quigley — two women who were pregnant when their husbands were murdered in the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Patti and Susan believed the only way to end terrorism was to extend compassion instead of violence, and when they learned that there were half a million widows in Afghanistan, they established Beyond the 11th to help.


It was a day in which one of Ghandhi’s lessons about strength was on display. Strength, he taught, doesn’t come from physical power. “It comes from an indomitable will.”

“I saw Patti and Susan’s incredible will to love, and wanted to support them,” Razia says.

At the party, Razia stood proudly in front of a quilt she made to commemorate this anniversary. It had already been displayed at Madison Square Garden, the Pentagon and at firehouses in New York and Massachusetts.

Razia remembered watching the New York firemen on television on September 11, 2001. “When everybody was running away, the firemen were the ones who were running in, trying to rescue people. And then they were killed, so many of them,” she told me. “That was really something that bothered me a great deal. Look at these human beings that are giving their life to save somebody else’s life. It’s just such a great honor to even watch them doing this. And so I tried to help them.”

She began by rallying her New England community to send over 400 homemade blankets to rescue workers at Ground Zero. Her efforts expanded to include sending care packages to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Through her involvement in the U.S. military’s Operation Shoe Fly, she coordinated the delivery of over 30,000 pairs of shoes to children in Afghanistan.

Razia, a Muslim, 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 treated as a second-class citizen because she was a girl.

It was a time in Afghanistan when the capitol city, Kabul, was considered as swanky as Paris, 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 on in the United States. After a decade of civil war, the Russians left and the Taliban swept into the power vacuum 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 her 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. She also embraced the ideal of service and eventually 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 were endangered simply because they wanted to live their lives as they always had. Under the Taliban, women were 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.

It was when the Taliban were ousted from power that Razia turned her attention back home to Afghanistan, now devastated by decades of war. When she returned to Kabul for the first time in 38 years, 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 kept girls from having equal rights, realizing their potential, and daring even to dream.

“When I went in 2002, I had no intention of building a school,” Razia said. “I wanted to help girls and boys, the refugees who were coming back and also the orphanages. The children were in state places run by the government and not treated well, especially the girls. On the street also, when you saw a little girl, she was treated so different than a boy. I thought that yes, boys are suffering, men are suffering, but the suffering of the women is so much worse.”

Razia committed to opening a school in a village that had never had a girls’ school before — Deh’Subz, where the Mujahedeen had helped drive out the Taliban. With a significant grant from her local Rotary Club, Razia had the money for the bricks and mortar.


But what’s happened in Deh’Subz is about much more than bricks and mortar. Inside the walls of the Zabuli Education Center for Girls, throughout the village, and across the country, Razia is teaching a vital lesson: Girls matter.

The Zabuli School started with 109 students. Today there are more than 500 girls going to school in kindergarten through 12th grade. In the six years I have been filming there for my documentary film What Tomorrow Brings, children attending kindergarten through fifth grade 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.

I’ve witnessed the remarkable changes made possible by education. Illiterate fathers who were wary about sending their daughters into the classroom now express pride that their little girls can help them read letters.

“Today our young daughters can read in English,” one father beamed. “Yes, this is a proud moment. The changes are enormous — like the difference between the earth and the sky. … We feel like this is our golden period, and we are kings.”

Razia recalls that when she first spoke to the men in the village, they would not look at her. They didn’t respect her because she was a woman.

“Their heads were down because my head was way up high, because I wanted to look in their eyes and say that you have to make a change,” she recalls. “But I can see the improvement. I can see that these men are ready to talk to us, ready to give their opinion, ready to listen to us. They have realized that the education they are giving these girls is going to make their life better, and they are very proud of that.”

K&K Laughing

Despite that, 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 whom 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, they beg their parents.

Yalda, a senior in high school — and part of the school’s first graduating class — was forced into an engagement two years ago when she was just 16 years old. But she was able to persuade her parents and her future in-laws to allow her to not only graduate from high school, but college as well. She’s on track to graduate as valedictorian in November. A poet at heart, Yalda reflected on all that is happening in her life.

“Life is like a guitar,” she says. “It can play happy notes and sad notes. But we have to listen to both.”

That is what Razia hears. And there are echoes from her own childhood that keep her pressing forward. “When I was growing up, I felt so loved and respected. And we were listened to. Our word meant something in the family. It didn’t matter how little you were, but if you had to say something, they would listen. And that is what I want for these girls.”

Yalda is proof that these girls now live in homes where people talk about more than one possibility for a daughter’s future. Education is making that possible.

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There’s a saying in Dari, “Each drops, when it flows, it makes a 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 change that education is bringing in these girls is also evident in the people around them in a profound way.

“I think the confidence they have, the courage they have, the self-respect they have, I can see that,” Razia says. “I can see the improvements and really sometimes I can’t even believe it. Everything is so much better for them; they are so confident. I think they are so bright, they are so intelligent, and they want to learn.”

This fall, the Zabuli School will have its first graduation. It’s an exciting, awesome, amazing achievement for Razia and for the girls. It’s also sobering because most of the graduates won’t be able to go on to college. It’s too far away, they don’t have access to transportation, many families simply won’t allow their daughters to leave the village, and they can’t afford it — 75% of girls in this school live below the poverty line.

So what happens to them now — these girls who have become an example for young girls all over Afghanistan, an example for their fathers and brothers, as well as their mothers and sisters? I make films, and that means I’m a storyteller. I’ve been filming these girls for six years, and I don’t want their story to end.

These smart, bright girls who graduate from the Zabuli School need to continue their education. And Afghanistan desperately needs female teachers and health care workers, and to set an example for the generations being born now.

The solution is simple, but I think, rather extraordinary: The girls can’t go to college … so college will come to them. Razia’s K-12 school is already the only free private school in the country, and now she’s making history again by committing to building a women’s two-year college in Deh’Subz. Building a college in a rural Afghan village had never been done before.

The crowdfunding campaign that supports Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation is BuildASchoolToday.com, hoping to turn the dream of the first women’s college in rural Afghanistan into a reality.

At the Zabuli Technical College, girls will have the opportunity to follow three tracks of study: nursing, teaching or engineering. These skills will give them an opportunity to contribute in a significant way to their families and village. Slowly, this community is already chipping away at attitudes that keep girls out of the classroom across Afghanistan, and this college will help further that journey.

There’s more at stake here than just sending the Zabuli girls to college. They are a living demonstration of the power of education to change everything. This college can be a catalyst for change for the better, and have a positive impact on generation after generation, quite literally changing the future. Even without a college yet to attend, these young women can envision themselves — and their own daughters one day — as college graduates.

The current seniors at Zabuli wrote letters (in English!) to the world about why they want to go to college. “My greatest wish is to become a teacher in the future. A good teacher is like a candle — it consumes itself to light the way for others! Educations means to me freedom from stereotypes. With college degree I will have future opportunities. … When I have a daughter, I wish her to be educated,” wrote 17-year-old Negeena.

Another senior — 18-year-old Mursal — wrote in her essay, “Education means to me freedom from poverty — with college degree I will have more access to resources. By getting education I myself will solve my problem without someone help, and can teach other boys and girls in my village. … I am the first girl in my family to get education. I want to become a prosecutor when I complete my education and serve to my people.”

It is this inner fortitude that Razia so admires.

“This is their will. And this is how they are showing their strength,” she says. “Little by little, they are finding support. It’s not an easy way. It’s a hard way. It might take 20 years … but I am so proud of these girls. So, so proud.”

TIM Summer 2015 CoverThis article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

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