Despite progress, girls in Afghanistan continue to face various obstacles as they pursue an education. Filmmaker and journalist Beth Murphy captures some of these challenges in her new documentary, What Tomorrow Brings.
The documentary premiered this past May at the 2016 HotDocs film festival. Making its broadcast debut later this month, What Tomorrow Brings depicts the experiences of students and educators at the first girls’ school in a small, conservative village outside of Kabul. Fully immersing herself in the community, Murphy provides an in-depth look at the lives of the students, educators and Razia Jan, the school’s founder.
Under Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan were prohibited from attending school. When the Taliban fell in 2001, girls and young women in the region gained greater access to the education they were previously denied—but threats to women’s rights and girls’ education persist. According to a report conducted by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 213 schools closed or were partially closed last year in response to threats, preventing more than 50,000 girls from attending school.
Born and raised in Afghanistan, humanitarian Razia Jan later moved to the United States where she resided for 38 years. As a young woman, she went to school and university—and even went on to further her education in the states.
After returning to Afghanistan and noticing the vast discrepancies between her experiences growing up and the reality young girls in the region face today, Jan was driven to action. She opened the Zabuli Education Center in the district of Deh’Subz in 2008. Amid pressure to turn the school into a boy’s school, Jan was persistent in her efforts to establish the Zabuli Education Center as a place to educate and empower young women and girls.
“For me, to really go and open this school for girls, in an area that they never allowed their daughters to go to school, was amazing to give the opportunity to these girls,” Jan told Ms. “To get self-respect, to get an education, and to stand for themselves.”
Murphy met Jan while she was working on another documentary. At the time, both women were working to promote efforts to aid widows in Afghanistan.
“When I heard that Razia was starting a school in a village that had never before allowed its daughters to be educated,” Murphy told Ms., “I knew that was a story that should be told. It inspired me. The feeling it gave me to my core was the feeling of hope—hope for girls, for women, for Afghanistan, for our world community, for the future. It’s a really special feeling to be reminded why hope is the most powerful human trait and why it is right and rational to have it.”
Community support was integral to the Zabuli Education Center’s success, and that success, in turn, leads to the success of the community. Although men in the community initially expressed opposition and doubt towards the idea of the school, attitudes have shifted. Speaking with Ms., Jan recently described how the amount of support for the school “has changed tremendously” over the years, especially among fathers and the village elders:
“I think slowly, they have realized that education is the best thing to give a girl. To give really, a young woman, to prosper in life. I think they have realized, and they have seen the result. That these girls are helping the whole family. Because when you educate the boy, you educate the boy. When you educate the girl, you educate the whole family. So, they are helping their mothers, their brothers, their younger siblings, their older siblings who never went to school. And they are teaching them how to read and write, which is a great accomplishment for these families to really have an education throughout the family.”
Although the local community members support the school, security remains a constant concern. The water on the school grounds is tested daily to ensure that it isn’t poisoned.
Starting with about 100 students at its inception, the Zabuli Education Center currently enrolls more than 550 girls in grades K-12. The school’s second class of seniors will graduate this fall. A number of the girls are interested in attending college, but they face financial limitations. About 75 percent of the girls attending the Zabuli Education Center fall beneath the poverty line. To help further the girls’ education, an impact campaign helped raised funds to construct the first free private women’s college in rural Afghanistan. The college is expected to open in early March 2017.
The school’s growth fills Murphy with optimism for the future and has even helped changed her perspective on the documentary’s title. “‘What tomorrow brings’ is something that Razia said in an interview that was so powerful that I made it the title of the film,” Murphy said. “My relationship with this title has been more pessimistic than optimistic over the years. Like there’s an impending sense of doom. What is going to happen tomorrow? The unknown felt scary. But now that more girls are graduating from high school and the college is opening, I have a real sense of what tomorrow really does bring for these girls. And I love it. What tomorrow brings is higher education, career opportunity and income to support themselves and their families.”
What Tomorrow Brings will air on PBS’s POV series on October 31st.