In Afghanistan today, there is no social issue more controversial than women's rights. And nothing cuts to the heart of the matter more than the education of young girls because nothing so radically threatens to change a deeply patriarchal society than rising generations of educated women.
In 2009, when Razia Jan, a visionary and fearless educator, arrived in the war-blasted village of Deh'Subz to open the Zabuli Education Center, she placed herself at the center of her country's turmoil. As recounted in the new documentary What Tomorrow Brings, she faced families and village elders hostile to female education, threats (and nearby examples) of Taliban violence against schools for girls and the haunting question of what would happen when U.S. forces withdrew. To sustain herself, Razia had her own resourcefulness, the passion of her teachers and, perhaps most surprisingly in a conservative rural setting, the free-spirited determination of the girls themselves to get an education.
What is the value of education? The film is a powerful example of what happens when learning extends far beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. Here, girls have the space to dream of -- and pursue -- a life different from the one they were born into.
One of the most striking features is the daily joy, curiosity and intellectual engagement of the girls in school--and the defiant or impish ruses they sometimes use to get there. They persist even when faced with beatings, forced engagements, and threats by a resurgent Taliban.
Pashtana, an effervescent seventh -grader (arguably the class clown), is one of the film's main subjects. She is forced into an engagement with her cousin and told that school is no place for girls. Pashtana's mother has a forceful, heart-wrenching reaction: "I don't want you to grow up blind like me, blind to everything going on in the world. As long as I'm alive I won't let anyone stop you."
Also featured is 23-year-old Rihala, the mayor's daughter and the oldest student, who can remember life under the Taliban. Among the teachers, the youthful Nazima is more than an instructor; she is a confidante, friend and role model for the girls.
Razia, the school founder, is articulate and wise. She knows that bringing education to a place that has never allowed its daughters to go to school requires that age-old customs are both understood and challenged. Most critical are her efforts to change men's attitudes toward women.
When What Tomorrow Brings opens, the Zabuli School is clearly, if always precariously, a success. The tension is palpable when Razia meets with village elders, including the mayor; it's clear they're not used to a woman being in charge. But it's also clear the men are thinking - not only about the value of education, but also about the value of their daughter's lives. With the security situation declining in Afghanistan, Razia implores the men--most of them fathers of students--to protect the school and keep it safe.
There are many studies that prove the ripple effect that happens when a girl is educated: She benefits, the family benefits, the community benefits. One elder voices this reality in his own family. He is illiterate, and it used to be that when he received a letter, he'd have to go door-to-door to find someone who could read it. Now his own daughter can read and even translate into English!
But at the school, as in Afghanistan itself, a sense of calm never lingers. Pashtana's family is dealing with poverty in the traditional way, arranging to marry her off to man she has no desire to wed--thus ending her education. Rihala's father (the mayor) takes a 16-year-old as his second wife. To keep his dowry costs down, he tries to force Rihala to marry his young bride's 70-year-old father. The joy in school and the dreams of new futures for both girls begin to take on a darker cast.
"Nobody has the right to prevent girls from getting an education," Razia tells her students. "If you were home you'd be washing clothes and sweeping. Your family would think of you like this flower. Theirs to protect or destroy. But this flower says, 'Here I stand. Strong. Even if you try to destroy me I will bloom again and I will be beautiful.'"
What Tomorrow Brings is a bracing, touching film about girls coming of age and struggling to find their way amid the chaotic, violent present and uncertain future that is Afghanistan.
"I started filming in 2009, shortly after the Zabuli Girls' School opened," says filmmaker Beth Murphy. "My final shoot was in December 2015 for the school's very first graduation. What I witnessed during the years of filming has been remarkable, and the transition in this community has been dramatic. It has transformed from a village that did not support girls' education to one in which fathers and elders are now excited to send their daughters on to college.
"The Zabuli School started with 109 students. Today there are more than 600 girls going to school in grades kindergarten through 12. In the years I have been filming there, grades kindergarten through 5 have doubled in size. Slowly, parents and elders are chipping away at attitudes that keep girls out of the classroom across Afghanistan, and I want to share a story that shows what's possible.
"Educating girls in Afghanistan means finding a precarious balance between hope and tradition, even at the best of times. These girls, their teachers and the school administrators face serious threats and formidable obstacles every day. I think they have earned the right to be heard. And I am hopeful that while the film brings attention to the precariousness of girls' education in Afghanistan, it can also spotlight a community that is lighting the way for others."
Learn more about the Zabuli Girls' School and Razia Jan's efforts here.