With US-Afghanistan security deal in limbo, girls' education is too

Razia Jan with students at her school in Kabul Province, Afghanistan
Principle Pictures

KABUL, Afghanistan — After a four-day meeting in Kabul of more than 2,000 Afghan tribal leaders, President Hamid Karzai rejected the assembly’s recommendation that he promptly sign a long-term security agreement with the United States, pending further negotiations. In the meantime, Afghans from all walks of life and members of the international community wait and worry about the country’s future.

Many fear rampant and well-documented corruption will reach new heights and that Taliban power will again strangle the country after an American troop withdrawal in 2014.

But there is an alternative being embraced by those who have led progress in the country over the past 12 years and have no intention of sitting quietly by and watching it all slip away. Afghanistan’s peaceful majority refuses to make the future an adversary, the unknown the enemy.

Pessimists and determined optimists alike agree that a continued US security presence is key, particularly if Afghanistan is going to continue its current advances in girls’ education and steps toward equality for women. As former US First Lady Laura Bush said in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “these gains are fragile, and there is a real danger that they will be reversed.”

I’m reminded of Persian poet Hafez’s words: Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you in better conditions.

Here in Kabul, this sentiment is deeply felt by the education advocates committed to holding, and continuing, their progress, no matter if or when the bilateral security agreement is signed.

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“There is so much talk right now about people leaving Afghanistan. I can assure you, I am here to stay,” says Razia Jan, founder of a girls' school in Kabul Province, and a devoted, proactive member of the peaceful majority. “A lot of people are thinking about leaving when the US troops leave, but I am staying back to continue to bring hope and education to my girls.”

Her girls are the more than 400 students attending the very first girls’ school in a remote village of Kabul Province.

Razia is a tenacious 69-year-old grandmother whose son once described her as “a verb” because of her punishing, globetrotting schedule and her ability to transform feeling into action.

After 9/11, she was broken-hearted for the first responders and for the victims. She organized a group that made American flag-themed blankets and sent them to policemen and firemen in New York. She created two massive quilts with photos and information about each of the victims at the Pentagon, and presented them at the Pentagon chapel. She coordinated the donations and delivery of tens of thousands of pairs of shoes for needy children in Afghanistan.

Razia was heartbroken for Afghanistan, the country of her birth—especially for the peaceful, powerless women and children of who would suffer even greater poverty and loss because of the tragedy. Although none of the 9/11 terrorists were Afghans, it was here that they trained in Al Qaeda camps. For the first time since coming to America in the 1970s for college, Razia felt compelled to return home. In 2008, 38 years after she first moved to the US, Razia packed up and moved to Kabul.

“When I left, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I just knew I had to do something,” she says.

(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

Once she was on the ground in Afghanistan, the need was obvious. She started the very first girls’ school in a conservative village on the outskirts of Kabul Province. It’s a place that has a long history of fighting outsiders, even the Taliban.

“The Taliban graveyard” is what Razia calls a cemetery near her school. “That’s how this village responds when the Taliban tries to come close.”

The anti-Taliban sentiment here is evident in other areas of Afghanistan as well. Many communities are firmly committed to holding on to the hard-won gains of the past decade. For the leaders in the private sector who have spent years building strong bonds, any threat to what they’ve accomplished is a call to action, a strengthening of their resolve. And here at Razia’s school, the most prominent village elders have partnered with Razia to help lead the way.

The village malik is one example. Malik literally means “king,” and as the village leader, the malik is very much like the king of Deh Yahya, where the school is located. By entrusting his four daughters to Razia’s teachers, he sends a powerful message to the community about the value of educating its daughters.

Religious leaders here, too, embrace the school. “Islam is a peaceful religion that says it is a sin not to seek knowledge,” said a popular mullah who is proud that his community has turned against the misogynistic practices of the old regime. “The Taliban would not educate women,” he says, “But you can see in our village we reject this thinking.”

It wasn’t always easy, and there were many who fought for this to be a boys’ school. But Razia won villagers over with her unwavering belief that “girls with knowledge, self-confidence, and pride are the future of this country. … They are the eyesight of Afghanistan.”

Her school and its students are a testament to the belief of the indestructibility of books and knowledge. The girls are mastering complex studies and in many cases becoming the most educated members of their families. In their skills, they have something to offer to their parents, their communities and their country.

A representative from the Afghan Ministry of Education recently told me that the school had been assessed as highly effective. “In fact,” he said, “It is perfect.”

As Razia and I sit together making French toast on the woodstove in her living room in Kabul, we talk about the chapter that is ending in Afghanistan, and the new one about to begin. September 11 brought her back to Afghanistan and put American troops on its soil. At the idea that at some point she may not be able to remain in Afghanistan when any protection afforded by the American military is gone, she is resolute.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says.

As I film her, Razia is emphatically present: hugging the girls, listening to their questions, huddling with her teachers, offering tea to the community elders, and later, at home, baking vast quantities of warm oatmeal bread and setting out to distribute it to the needy near her neighborhood.

I watch with admiration as she tends to all these people, and I am reminded of another line from Hafez: I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.

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