On Thursday, Geri Bloch’s senior English class, Women’s Voices in Modern Literature, skyped with Beth Murphy, director and producer of What Tomorrow Brings, a documentary the class watched earlier in the week that portrays the hardships faced by students in the first-ever school for girls in Afghanistan.
Women’s Voices in Modern Literature delves into texts with women protagonists and/or with women authors in order to better understand women’s complex place in society in the past, present and future.
“My senior elective is all about showcasing women’s lives, women’s art and women’s struggles, and some women speak through a camera lens,” Bloch said. “After I saw the trailer for a film about Razia Jan’s school for girls in Afghanistan, I knew that the students in my class would love to hear the voices of Razia, her teachers, and her students discuss the struggles they have to go to school, to maintain the school and to grow the school in a culture that does not always support the education of women.”
Through the organization Facing History and Ourselves, with Schechter Westchester’s liaison Shira Deener, the class was able to see the documentary before it was officially released. The organization was started in 1976 and deals with topics of anti-Semitism, genocide, eugenics, racism, human rights, and collective violence, among many others. Deener initially brought Razia’s story to Ms. Soloveichik, and then to Ms. Weiss and Ms. Bloch.
Filmed in a small Afghan village that has never before allowed its girls to be educated, What Tomorrow Brings follows the stories of three students, two teachers, and the school’s founder, Razia Jan.
Twelve years after the Taliban was kicked out of Afghanistan by the U.S., the Zabuli School, the only free private school in the country, provided girls in Deh‘Subz village the opportunity to educate themselves, straying away from the traditional Afghanistani girl’s path.
Nevertheless, the young girls—and their teachers—live in constant fear that the Taliban will return and their school will be destroyed.
The school’s primary goal to finish the girls’ education is also at risk: from burning down schools, suicide attacks, throwing acid at girls and poisoning the girls, the girls that are seeking an education are not only struggling against time, but struggling against tradition.
One girl, Rihala, attends the Zabuli school, but has not been to school in 36 days. When her teacher spoke to her father, he said he did not know why she was not going to school; however, later Rihala revealed that she stopped going to school because her father would not let her go.
Despite many challenges, Jan’s school has flourished and has seemingly achieved its goal of educating the next generation of girls and of changing the culture of anti-female education that is so prominent in Afghan society.
“We built the school in 2008 with 101 girls. Eight years later, now we have 491 girls,” Jan said in an interview with Examiner Enterprise. “Our first graduating class is going to be in six weeks. We have seven students that are going to graduate.”
At the Zabuli School, the girls learn not only to read and write, but also how to extend their education beyond the classroom; they are starting to realize that school is a place where they are able to fathom the differences between the lives they were born into and the lives they dream of living.
“The documentary had a huge effect on me. I went straight home and told my whole family about it,” said senior Rachel Saposh, a student in Women’s Voices in Modern Literature. “It made me value my education so much more. Right now, the college process is so stressful, but when you look at these girls who didn’t even have a college until two years ago, it makes you appreciate all of the choices that are available to us.”
The day after watching the film, the class skyped with Murphy, who expressed her plans of returning to Afghanistan to wrap-up the final pieces of the documentary that have yet to be released to the public.
A producer, director, author and university professor, Murphy founded Principle Pictures in 1999. Committed to giving a voice to the voiceless, Principle Pictures is an independent production company that focuses on raising awareness about important social issues and inspiring education and action through film.
Murphy has traveled around the world to capture human rights and international issues in developing countries or countries ravished by war.
“I met Razia back in 2006 when we were both kind of supporting programs that helped war widows in Afghanistan. For my part, I was doing a documentary called ‘Beyond Belief’,” Murphy said. “I was so impressed with her mission, who she was, what she was going to do and how she was going about it. She was really taking on this enormous challenge to build a school in a place that had never sent their daughters to school before. It was a matter really of educating the community before being able to start educating the girls.”
During the skype session, Murphy revealed stories about her trips to Afghanistan: detailing the young women she met and the issues and dangers one faces when filming in a country rife with violence. Murphy recounted that the most dangerous part of her trip was driving two hours from where she stayed to the village where the school was located, located in the outskirts of the capital city Kabul. She recounted times of extremists packed in a van screaming, “Why don’t you come have lunch with the Taliban?”
Murphy also explained how this particular village is actually supportive of the girls’ education because the school has helped the village’s economy. “When you take a community that in 2008 was very skeptical about girls’ education, fathers aren’t sure they want to send their daughters to school,” said Murphy in an interview with Examiner Enterprise. “In 2015, the village elders are not only very happy with the education their daughters are receiving in K-12, now they are enthusiastically supporting the building of a community college next door… What a change. To me, that’s the story. That’s the whole story.”
Murphy went on to say, “For the girls, they are really learning how to navigate some really difficult situations in their lives — early engagements, forced marriages and learning what it means to become a woman in Afghanistan, which is a really patriarchal society. Razia and the teachers are really helping them to navigate those difficult challenges that they face at home.”
In response to asking how the class can help, Murphy said that sponsoring a girl in the Zabuli School for $300 a year will allow the school to run perfectly, giving the girls who mostly come from very poor families the ability to learn with their own books and supplies.
“As part of the Humans Rights club, I have had exposure to topics like this before, but this time, speaking with the documentarian Beth Murphy directly, really opened up my eyes to the dangers that the filmers and the girls are in everyday. Hearing her talk really made me want to contribute more to this cause. And I can, along with every other student, by sponsoring a girl at the school,” senior Lulu Weisfeld said.
After filming for around six years, Murphy said that the she has seen a change in the girls; they are finally able to envision a future for themselves that does only consist of marriages and housewifery.
“The girls also know how hard they can fight, and some of them can fight very hard and some of them cannot,” Jan said. “But every day they postpone their living, that is a gain for them.”