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"Will Stand By My Girls Until My Last Breath": How Razia Jan Is Fighting to Save Girls' Education in Afghanistan

How you can help Razia Jan educate the girls of Afghanistan.

Until recently, if you walked into the Zabuli Education Center in the rural district of Deh'Subz outside of Kabul, you would have seen bustling classes from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, full of girls who were attending free of charge. The school was the brainchild of Razia Jan, an Afghan-American entrepreneur and the founder of the Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation. Founded in 2008, Jan's school now educates nearly 800 impoverished girls every year. Over time, it's also changed attitudes in the community about the value of educating girls, especially among men who went from skepticism and even hostility toward the school to bragging about its graduates. "From the day I opened the doors of the Zabuli Education Center, my effort was and is to provide security and the best education for these girls," she said when she was named one of CNN's Heroes of the Year. "With hard work, I have proven to the men of seven villages surrounding the school that this is the best thing that’s happened for their daughters."

Jan was born in southern Afghanistan, and traveled to the US in 1970 to visit her brother in Boston and pursue her own college education. But political unrest, including the civil war, the Soviet invasion, and the Taliban takeover, kept her from returning home for almost four decades. She ran a small tailoring business in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and after the September 11 terrorist attacks, she rallied her community to give 400 homemade blankets to rescue workers at Ground Zero; send care packages to US soldiers fighting the Taliban; and supported Operation Shoe Fly, coordinating the delivery of 30,000 shoes to poor Afghan children. Finally, after the fall of the Taliban, Jan was able to visit her homeland — and she was shocked to see the reality of girls' lives in a country that has long been considered one of the worst places in the world to be female. “That was so hard for me to see," she recalled, "when I went back after spending 38 years — really all of my adult life — in the United States,”

Determined to help the girls of Afghanistan, Jan founded Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation and returned to Afghanistan to open her first school, the Zabuli Education Center, in a poor area where girls had never been allowed to go to school before. One of the first major challenges Jan encountered was overcoming local prejudice against educating girls. "I tell my teachers on the first day of school to teach the kindergartners how to write their name and their father’s name," she says. "Many of these men use their thumbprint for a signature, so if they see their daughters writing their name, it might help change the men’s attitude toward us."

At first, the school served only girls in kindergarten to the fourth grade but it grew as along with its students, and by 2016, it offered classes up to twelfth grade for 600 students. To give its graduates an opportunity to continue their education, Jan opened the Razia Jan Institute, the first women's post-secondary vocational college in rural Afghanistan, in 2017. The college offers tuition-free, two-year training in midwifery and nursing; which allows its graduates to provide critically needed medical services to rural communities. Just this year, the school has been in the midst of a major campus expansion project. The construction of a new building is underway that was scheduled to open next March; the expanded campus would allow the school to educate more than 1,000 girls each year and help alleviate the years-long waiting list for spots at the school.

Now that the Taliban have taken over once again, the school's future is uncertain — but Jan is determined to keep it open. The Foundation, which also runs a sponsorship program to allow people to support individual girls, is currently running a GoFundMe for donations that will enable them to expand enrollment for new students whose families have been displaced to their region, as well as funding for their staff, students, and their families through the current instability. Although the situation is grim, Jan said in an interview today with The Patriot Ledger that "we are in a much better position" than when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan. "We have the backing of the community where I have my school and of people all over Afghanistan... I think it has changed, and men are – in my area – really respecting these girls. They are not selling them, not giving them away or forcing marriage. These are the things that I see every day and I believe in all of these young women."

Even if the school must close temporarily or reorganize, Jan knows that the education the girls have received can help sustain them through this dark time. When her father was jailed as a political prisoner, he used memorized poetry to provide comfort to both himself and his fellow prisoners. "I think it saved his life," Jan says. "I tell [my students], 'No matter how little you know, no one can ever take that away from you.'" And regardless of what comes, Jan is determined to find a way to educate Afghan girls, asserting: "I will stand by my students and my girls until the last breath I have. We are not going to abandon them."

If you'd like to help support Razia's ongoing work of educating girls in Afghanistan, you can donate here.

Books About The Lives of Girls and Women In Afghanistan

The Library Bus

The Library Bus

Written by: Bahram Rahman
Illustrated by: Gabrielle Grimard
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Today, Pari got up before dawn to join her Mama on the library bus. Mama brings books to the refugee camps, and teaches the girls there to read and write in English. It's not long ago, she tells Pari, that girls weren't allowed to study: Mama herself only learned to read because her father, Pari's grandfather, taught her at home. Now, girls like Pari — and the girls at the refugee camps — no longer have to fear people finding out they go to school. "Study hard [and] never stop learning," Mama tells her. "Then you will be free." Written by an Afghan refugee, and inspired by the memory of his own sister being forbidden to learn, this is a celebration of literacy and of the power of educating girls and women.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$21.86 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£13.99 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$31.56 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£13.99 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$28.40 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$13.49 (USD)

Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

Written by: Jeanette Winter
Illustrated by: Jeanette Winter
Recommended Age: 7 - 9

When the Taliban soldiers arrived in Herat, Afghanistan, art, music, and learning disappeared... and so did Nasreen's parents. Now, in the care of her loving grandmother, Nasreen refuses to speak, traumatized by the loss. To help her granddaughter, the grandmother enrolls Nasreen in a secret school for girls run out of a private home — even though she knows how dangerous that could be. There, with the help of a caring teacher, new friends, and the power of the written word, Nasreen learns about the potential for a brighter future... as long as she has hope. Based on a true story, this touching picture book by renowned creator Jeanette Winter is a powerful illustration of the power of education to transform girls' lives and the healing power of love.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$19.79 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£8.89 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$23.75 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£14.72 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$35.09 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$14.59 (USD)

One Half from the East

One Half from the East

Written by: Nadia Hashimi
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

After Obayda's father was injured in a bomb blast in Kabul, the family is forced to move to a small village — and they could use some good fortune. Her aunt has an idea that she says could help: Obayda could become a bacha posh, a prepubescent girl living as a boy. As Obayd, with a short haircut and boys' clothing, she tastes all the privileges of a boy — going to school, skipping chores, and even eating meat at meals — and she meets another bacha posh who becomes a fast friend. But there's a time limit on their transformation: once they go through puberty, they'll have to be girls again... unless they can find a way to hold on to their newfound freedom. Nadia Hashimi, author of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, shines in her first book for young readers which explores this unique tradition and the marks it leaves on the girls who have a taste of freedom for a few precious years.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$8.42 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£5.09 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$15.64 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£5.10 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$18.63 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$9.22 (USD)

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner

Written by: Deborah Ellis
Recommended Age: 10 and up

When the Taliban, an authoritarian Islamic fundamentalist regime, takes control of Afghanistan, Parvana, her mother, and sisters suddenly can't go to school, work outside the home, or even appear in public without being covered. When her father is arrested because of his foreign education, the family is soon in dire straights. So Parvana takes a bold step: she cuts her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and sets off to earn money. The first volume in a series about living under Taliban oppression — and after it — is suspenseful and all too timely, even years after it was written. The series continues with Parvana's Journey and Mud City, which are also collected in a single volume in The Breadwinner Trilogy, and in My Name is Parvana; the book has also been adapted into an acclaimed animated film.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$10.99 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£5.94 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$15.91 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£10.49 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$19.74 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$8.87 (USD)

Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time

Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time

Written by: Tanya Lee Stone
Recommended Age: 13 and up

When you educate a girl, you truly can change the world! Building on the documentary Girl Rising, author Tanya Lee Stone explores the barriers to education that keep 62 million girls out of school, including early child marriage and childbearing, slavery, sexual trafficking, gender discrimination, and poverty. She also shows how removing these barriers means not only a better life for girls, but safer, healthier, and more prosperous communities for everyone. This powerful call to action will encourage readers of all ages to join the Girl Rising movement.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$12.13 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£15.99 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$40.66 (AUD)
The Book Depository
(Unavailable)
The Book Depository
A$40.35 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$15.99 (USD)

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

Written by: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Recommended Age: Adults

Young Kamila Sidiqi faced many obstacles as a woman in Afghanistan, but she was able to earn a teaching degree despite the disruptions of the civil war. But when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1995, her life changed overnight. Suddenly, she was banned from her school and confined at home — and when her father and brother were targeted by the insurgents and had to flee, she became the only breadwinner for five siblings. Determined to survive, she started a dressmaking business. Despite threats, beatings, and even imprisonment, she kept working, and her business slowly grew, first employing her sisters, and then providing work and training for other neighborhood women in desperate circumstances. This true story of resilience and sisterhood is a testament to the power of the human spirit.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$19.99 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£14.59 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$45.19 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£19.41 (GBP)
The Book Depository
(Unavailable)
Amazon.com
$14.39 (USD)

A Woman Among Warlords

The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice

A Woman Among Warlords

The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice

Written by: Malalai Joya
Recommended Age: Adults

Growing up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, Malalai Joya dreamed of helping people in her home country of Afghanistan. She began by teaching in secret girls' schools, and founding a free medical clinic and orphanage. But that wasn't enough: Afghanistan's leaders needed to change. In 2003, at only 25 years of age, she stood up at a constitutional assembly and defied the NATO-backed warlords; two years later, she became the youngest person elected to Afghanistan's new Parliament. And two years after that, she was suspended from Parliament because of her ongoing criticism of the warlords and those who support them. This powerful account of both acts of rebellion and the courage it takes to change a nation celebrates one of modern Afghanistan's heroic women.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$22.77 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£14.11 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$40.32 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£17.62 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$32.67 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$15.89 (USD)

Dancing in the Mosque

An Afghan Mother's Letter to Her Son

Dancing in the Mosque

An Afghan Mother's Letter to Her Son

Written by: Homeira Qaderi
Recommended Age: Adults

Growing up in Afghanistan, author Homeira Qaderi's grandmother once told her "a girl should have fear in her eyes" — but her parents secretly helped her get an education, even when that meant burying books in the backyard so they wouldn't be discovered by the Taliban. As a 13-year-old, Qaderi became a secret teacher for younger girls and, as an adult, she fought for women's rights. But when she refused to accept her husband's desire to marry a second wife, he divorced her via a three-word text message reading ‘divorce, divorce, divorce’ — and took 19-month-old son, Siawash, away from her. This searing new memoir is her story as she would wish her son to hear it, full of her reflections about love, sacrifice, and survival and all of the soul-crushing choices she was forced to make as a woman in Afghanistan.

Buy:
Buy:
Amazon.ca
C$26.84 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
(Unavailable)
Amazon.com.au
A$48.14 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£24.16 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$46.91 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$15.99 (USD)

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