KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Razia Jan woke up before dawn on the eve of the big graduation.
It was 4:50 AM when she turned off the small electric heater by her bed, headed for the kitchen, and began crushing pistachios and walnuts. By sunrise, the house was filled with the smell of cardamom as she reigned over an enormous vat of rice pudding.
Twelve hours later, Razia piled eight trays of pudding into her car – along with hundreds of sambosas, naan, specialty cakes and chutneys – to make the drive to “her” school, the all-girls’ Zabuli Education Center she opened in 2008. She wanted to make sure everything was perfect for the next day’s celebration – the school’s first graduation.
That’s when the explosion happened.
“If I lived in fear, I’d never do anything,” she said as her cell phone lit up with news of the Taliban’s latest bold bombing attacks in the heart of the capitol.
According to a grim Pentagon report, the Taliban is the strongest it has been since 2001, and 2015 brought more instability and insecurity.
“The resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people,” the report states.
The conflict is having a direct impact on the educational opportunities for Afghan girls. According to the United Nations, more than 20,500 girls who had access to education in 2014 no longer do because of attacks, threats, and school closings.
“This year Afghanistan has witnessed some horrific incidents of violence against women… Justice and accountability must be upheld,” says Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and acting head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
After a year of deteriorating security in Kabul and across the country, the shock of insurgent attacks is wearing off.
“There’s no place that’s safe. I can’t say here is safe, or there is safe. You never know where or when something will happen. I’ve had close calls,” says Razia, who was born in Afghanistan but went to college and then lived for many years in Massachusetts before the attacks of 9-11 compelled her to try to do something to help girls in her homeland.
On this Friday night, when a sporadic six-hour gunfight followed a car bombing in a diplomatic neighborhood that’s considered a safer part of the city, Razia did what most Afghans have grown used to doing in the face of escalating violence: she stayed on schedule.
After all, this graduation could not wait.
Once the food for the celebration was delivered to the school, Razia was back on the road headed home. Her car bounced along the narrow dirt path out of Deh’Subz village as the sounds of Iranian pop artist Ali AbdolMaleki pulsed through the speakers.
When it was time for her to close her eyes for the night, explosions and gunfire were still echoing through the city.
Yalda was awake before the prayer call came between dawn and sunrise. In the early morning chill, she fed small pieces of wood into the family’s bukhari, the metal drum-shaped stove that kept them warm through the winter. Her husband and mother-in-law were still sleeping as she moved quietly past them to make green tea.
The anticipation had made it hard for her to sleep, and now that feeling followed her into the kitchen.
Two years ago, Yalda was a 16-year-old high school freshman dreaming about playing the guitar and becoming a writer. Then her parents announced her engagement to a local shopkeeper. Yalda was devastated.
“I don’t want to get married. I just want to go to school,” she said at the time.
Her fiancé, Lutfullah, was in his early 20s. Tall and wiry with kind eyes and a quick smile, Lutfullah owns a small store near the school, and Yalda often stopped there to buy pens and candies. She knew he had dropped out of high school and worried he wouldn’t want his wife to be better educated than he was.
“I really tried to become an educated person – my parents wanted that, but unfortunately, my father died when I was in 11th grade,” Lutfullah said. “After that we had a lot of financial problems, and I had to start working.”
Ironically, his father’s death – the thing that kept Lutfullah from continuing his education – could be one of the reasons Yalda is able to continue hers. In many homes in this deeply traditional society, future fathers in law demand that girls leave their education behind when they are to be wed.
Lutfullah surprised her when he told her he’d allow her to finish high school and even go on to college. Her father and uncles agreed, too. But in a community that was still getting used to the idea of girls going to school at all, Yalda wasn’t sure they would follow through on the promise. As a pre-emptive strike, she and her eighteen classmates asked Razia Jan about skipping a grade. Seven of them – including Yalda – scored high enough on their exams to move from 9th grade to 11th.
Everyone knew that girls who got engaged rarely lasted in the classroom. No one had ever gotten married and stayed in school. But Yalda did.
She and Lutfullah got married in August – halfway through her senior year. Wedding pictures on her cell phone show a serious-looking bride wearing a deep crimson scarf and bold eyeliner. She blushed as she scrolled through the photos, giggling with her friends about how much they danced that night.
During her eight years at the Zabuli Education Center, Yalda was always vying for the top spot in her class. “No one studies harder than I do. I fast before all of my tests so that god will recognize this sacrifice and help me to get the first position,” Yalda said last year when she was ranked second.
But as she juggled the responsibilities of being a wife and a student, her grades slipped. It became the diploma – not her ranking – that mattered most to her.
At 7AM Yalda slipped out of the house and walked to school in the shiny black patent leather shoes Razia had bought for each of the graduates. Her friends were waiting for her in the school bathroom. They had changed so much since enrolling as 4th graders.
The biggest room in the Zabuli school can hold about a hundred people. At one end a stage had been created using crates from science kits recently shipped from the U.S. Those crates were then covered with a huge Afghan carpet.
Another three hundred guests from around the world prepared to join the celebration virtually.
In the back of the room, a private area shielded by white cloth was set up for mothers, but none came.
Eventually, that space, too, was filled with teachers and students while fathers, village elders, foreign journalists and the president of American University Kabul packed in shoulder-to-shoulder closest to the stage.
Across the hall, graduates were taking in the novelty of the experience. It’s unusual for Afghans graduating from high school to wear caps and gowns. That’s an honor typically reserved for college graduates. These seniors—who had all started together in the 4th grade when the school opened in 2008—whispered with a nervous energy as they prepared to graduate. They added pins to keep their caps in place, straightened their gold sashes, and repositioned each other’s tassels to make sure the metallic ’15 was facing out.
Nearly 15 years after the fall of the Taliban and an end to its barbaric rule that banned girls from the classroom, educating girls is still an act of defiance. The Taliban is again waging an offensive in the country, and the Islamic State is on the rise. For the approximately 2.5 million girls who are in school today, the threat to their education is very real.
And more and more Afghans are tired of trying to wait out the war. Noticeably absent among the graduation guests was Nazima Naween, one of the school’s beloved teachers. She fled the country in the summer – one of 200,000 Afghans who made the harrowing trek to Europe by sea in 2015. According to latest figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Afghans are the second-largest group of new arrivals in the refugee crisis sweeping Europe, accounting for 20 percent of the more than one million migrants and refugees who arrived there this year.
A vacillation between despair and hope defines this country.
By the time the graduation ceremony started at 10 AM, every seat was taken, and the power of this moment as an antidote to fear and terror was palpable.
“Today is a very special day for us,” Razia told the crowd. “It is beyond my thought and my dreams that we will be sitting here with our first graduating class. Now, I welcome our first graduating class.”
With that, she opened the door and the seven graduates filed into the room to thunderous applause.
Yalda’s place in line at the graduation ceremony carried profound meaning, a transformation for this community for a young wife to be in school. And it was not lost on Razia who, despite her very practiced sense of composure around the girls, could not stop the tears of pride that welled when she handed Yalda her diploma.
Razia’s voice cracked, “This is our first graduate who got married and she is still in school, and she wants to continue her education.”
“Today, I know that anyone who has a strong faith in doing something can do it,” said Yalda at the gathering after the girls had thrown their green graduation caps high in the Afghan winter air. “I am a living example,” she said.
Amidst much uncertainty and the violence, Razia is staying her course. She is creating new opportunities for girls beyond high school. Construction is nearly complete for a new community college that is being built next to the high school.
The community college will offer young women a chance to study Nursing/Midwifery and Computer Science. These professional skills are badly needed in Afghanistan. Among the students taking advantage of this opportunity is Yalda. She is on track to become a midwife in her community. How does her husband feel about it? “Times have changed,” said Lutfullah. “It’s a time of learning.”