By Beth Murphy
October 29, 2016
When I first met Pashtana, she was a 15-year-old in the seventh grade — the oldest student in her classroom. She was caught in the awkward moment between being a girl and becoming a woman, and not quite comfortable in either role. But she was an eager class clown.
With holes in her clothes, and borrowed shoes that didn’t quite fit, Pashtana launched into a classroom stand-up routine before the teacher arrived. She grabbed her long braid and held it up to her face, mimicking an older man who was courting her friend.
“Hey!” she yelled. “This is what your fiancé looks like!”
Then, Pashtana turned the joke on herself. “My fiancé is tall with a giant head! I try to hold his hand, but I cannot reach!”
The girls laughed; it was a familiar scenario to them all.
Pashtana’s school — the Zabuli Education Center — is the first girls’ school in Deh’Subz, a village on the outskirts of Kabul Province. Pashtana was 10 when it opened in 2008, and because of her age — and because she had never been to school before — she was assigned to the second grade.
Like most men in the village, Pashtana’s father was educated only through the sixth grade, but the education was so poor that he still signs his name with a thumbprint. Her mother never went to school at all.
“I’m the first person in my family who can read and write,” she told me proudly.
Her smile faded when I asked about her future. Like many girls her age, considered old enough for marriage, Pashtana knew her window for education was closing. She had, in fact, already been forced into an engagement with her cousin.
Extreme poverty drove her family’s decision. They’re among the many families in this area living on less than $7 per a week, and Pashtana remembers many winters as a child without a winter coat or socks.
The money her fiancé gives her parents as part of their betrothal goes far in supporting them and her three younger siblings, she told me. Part of her argument to them for staying in school was built on the fact that the Zabuli Education Center is free.
“I won’t marry him until after I graduate,” she said defiantly at the time. “And I have told everyone that he has to graduate, too.”
Ten years ago, it was unimaginable that the men in this village would allow their daughters to go to school at all. Once the Zabuli Education Center was built, it was unimaginable that a girl who got engaged — let alone married — would be able to stay in school. For a time, Pashtana was able to convince her father, her uncles, her fiancé and her fiancé’s family that she could be both a wife and a student. But it wasn’t easy.
“When I told them I won’t stop going to school, my father hit me with a glass,” Pashtana said. “I told him, ‘You can hit me with anything you want … I have some education now. I know how a woman should live. I have also learned what is right and what is wrong.’”
It’s an education that is going far beyond the classroom.
“We never expected that girls who got engaged would stay in school, and definitely not after getting married,” said Razia Jan, the woman who started the school amid great opposition from village elders who wanted her to build a school for boys.
Jan was born and raised in Afghanistan in the 1950s and came to America as a young woman to go to college. She expected to go back in four years, but because of continuing conflict, she stayed in the United States for 38 years, returning only after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Today, her nonprofit, Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation, funds the school — mostly from private donors in the United States.
Jan says the educational opportunity and freedom she had as a child in Afghanistan are what she hopes to provide to her students today. She is realistic about how much — and how fast — change can happen, but is buoyed by the ways the community seems to be embracing the value of girls’ education in ways they never did.
In 2008, there were 109 students. Today, there are nearly 600. And girls who were once expected to drop out are increasingly surprising Jan.
“Now we have five students who are engaged more than one year, and one girl who got married and graduated,” she said. “Since they’ve been to school, I think the confidence they have gives them the courage to stand up for themselves at home.”
Still, early marriages and poverty are two of the biggest reasons more than 130 million girls are out of school globally. In Afghanistan, 3.2 million girls are in school. But there are another 3 million who aren’t. Sadly, today, Pashtana is one of them.
Just a month before she was to begin eighth grade, Pashtana got married in a wedding ceremony with two other couples — a way to save money, Jan told me. I’ve been back to Afghanistan twice since, but haven’t been able to see or communicate with Pashtana. Her friends, too, have lost touch.
“Don’t count her out,” Jan assures us. “I don’t think that she will be gone for good … I think we will hear from her again.”
But even if she doesn’t return to graduate, the five years she spent in school put her in a better position to improve her life and the lives of those around her, and make her more likely to send her own children to school. I’d like to think that if Pashtana has a daughter, she will realize her mother’s dream.
Beth Murphy is director of films at The GroundTruth Project and founder of Principle Pictures. Her feature-length documentary “What Tomorrow Brings,” on which this Op-Doc is based, airs on PBS’s POV series October 31st. This film is part of a series by independent filmmakers supported by Chicken & Egg Pictures.