KABUL, Afghanistan — In the past seven years, The Zabuli Education Center has brought major changes to Afghanistan’s rural Deh’Subz district.
Razia Jan, an Afghan native and U.S. citizen, founded The Zabuli Education Center in 2008. Once criticized by conservative community leaders for supporting female education, she is now known throughout the region as “Mother of Deh’Subz.”
Jan left Afghanistan in 1970 to study in the United States. When the Soviet invasion of 1979 prevented her from returning home, she stayed in the United States and started a new life.
In the years following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Jan felt compelled to help her home country, specifically its uneducated Afghan girls. After fundraising through her nonprofit, Razia’s Ray of Hope, she headed back to Afghanistan in 2005 with plans to build Deh’Subz’s first girls’ school.
“I saw that the girls had been the most oppressed,” she explains. “The Taliban regime was very brutal […] the woman had no place in their book.”
The Afghanistan to which Jan returned in the mid-2000s was vastly different from the Afghanistan of her youth. While in power, the Taliban enforced its strict interpretation of Sharia law, which banned women from attending school and working independently outside the home. Since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, the Afghan government has gradually worked to improve girls’ school enrollment rates. Still, the cultural stigma around girls’ education has kept many girls out of school, especially in rural, more conservative regions.
Initially, Jan encountered resistance from the community’s male leaders. Girls, they believed, should not be educated. One man, arguing that the new building should be used as a boys’ school, told Jan that men are the backbone of Afghanistan. Jan responded, “And do you know what the women are? Women are the eyesight of Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, you are all blind.”
Facing strong opposition, Jan discovered a powerful way to win over students’ families. In the first week of school, she decided, each girl would learn how to write her father’s name.
For many fathers, the lesson sealed their support for the school. Jan says of one father, “I swear to God, the guy was crying. He said, ‘I don’t know how to write my name. I put my thumb on everything. And my 4-year-old girl knows how to write my name.’”
After seven successful years, Jan has gained widespread community support for the school. More than 400 students now attend the The Zabuli Education Center, with students ranging in age from 4 to 22. One official from the Afghan Ministry of Education described the school as “perfect.”
Located 30 miles outside Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, the school is within walking distance of seven villages in the district of Deh’Subz. Many girls walk up to 45 minutes to school, with some so eager to learn that they come running up to the school building.
With students in grades K-12, the school offers courses in reading, math, science and Quran studies. It also teaches English, Farsi and Pashto and has a computer lab with full Internet access. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education has praised the center as the best private school in the region.
Jan hopes that the education that girls receive at The Zabuli Education Center will free them from a cycle of poverty and early marriage. Most students come from poor families and are the first generation to be educated.
Unfortunately, quality girls’ education in Afghanistan is not without its dangers. Security is a top concern for Jan and the school’s staff, as the Taliban has attacked other girls’ schools across the country with guns, bombs and acid. On the day The Zabuli Education Center opened in 2008, extremists threw hand grenades inside another school in the region, killing 100 girls.
To protect students and teachers, the school is surrounded by guards and a high stone wall. Every morning the principal tests the well water for poison, while guards check for dangerous gases in classrooms.
“People are so much against girls getting educated,” Jan explains. “So we have to do these precautions.”
Despite initial resistance, most people from Deh’Subz’s villages have come to support Jan’s work. Community members are protective of the school, as many have relatives in attendance. Even local leaders now send their daughters—a mark of commitment to the school that has transformed an entire region.
In 2012, Jan was named a CNN Hero of the Year for her work with the school and its parent foundation, Razia’s Ray of Hope. After years of defying the odds, the school’s first seven girls will graduate this November. Handing them their diplomas, Jan says, will be the happiest day of her life.