Educating women is a sensitive subject in Afghanistan. Attacks from insurgents opposing women education are common, but often the fundamental challenges lie within the families of the girls in question, and the communities to which they belong. The search for solutions to this predicament might seem futile, but American documentarian Beth Murphy’s film What Tomorrow Brings tells a different story. The film brings hope around what often seems a hopeless struggle, and makes you realize that the true danger is not necessarily the struggle itself, but rather the compassion fatigue that we give in to when facing difficult matters which we don’t perceive as our own.
It is exactly this compassion fatigue that director Murphy seeks to change. Filmed over a period of eight years, What Tomorrow Brings chronicles the daily life in the Zabuli Education Center, a school for girls in the district of Deh Sabz, near Kabul, Afghanistan. During the Q&A at the Movies That Matter Festival in The Hague, Murphy says: «I wanted the film to be a very intimate portrayal of teachers and students, both in their homes and at school». And that is exactly what the film has become.
Sisterhood. The school was founded by Razia Jan, an Afghan woman who lived in the United States for decades and decided to return to Afghanistan to help rebuild the country. Jan had the courage and tenacity to build a school for girls, against all local pressure to build one for boys. From the very beginning she needed the approval of the village elders – a group of men with low education who told her men should be educated because they are the backbone of Afghanistan. Jan refused to give up, and replied that if men are the backbone, women are the eyes of the country, and without them, all men are blind.
«The struggles are different, but the goals are the same,» says Jan, referring to the universal goal of every teacher to give her students the best chance in life. Yet the challenges that arise on the road to reach that goal can be very distinct. At the Zabuli Education Center, the water is checked every morning to make sure it is not poisoned, and the bags of the schoolgirls are examined at the entrance.
But if there is one word to define the atmosphere in the film, «sisterhood» is it. There is a bond between the girls, and between them and their teachers. And there is a certain feeling of «girl power» that transpires from this bond.
In many ways, the Center is much more than just a school. «For each one of these girls, school is some sort of heaven. At home they are always scolded or slapped by their brothers because they didn’t bring a glass of water, or their uncles are mad because they came in the room without covering their head. The message they always receive is that they are no good. And they come to school and we tell them they are the best and we are there to help them, and that makes all the difference, and makes them grow and find that strength to stand up for themselves,» says Jan.
«For each one of these girls, school is some sort of heaven.»
Patriarchal power. The girls do seem to live in two separate worlds simultaneously. By portraying their lives from different angles, the camera unavoidably bears witness to the all-prevailing power of men – and the objectifying double standards they apply in relationship to women.
Sometimes the male concerns seem ridiculous: One group of local men are worried that the windows of the new school are not placed high enough, and that the girls can be seen from the street. Other times, however, the dangers of their intrinsic power become painfully clear. When one schoolgirl’s father takes a 16-year-old for a second wife, he stops his daughter from going to school; in order to marry his child bride, he promised his new father-in-law his own daughter’s hand in marriage in return.
Throughout the film, it seems clear that this particular form of patriarchal power is determined by an unquestioned social order and not by the inner strength of these specific men. Instead of appearing powerful, each one of them seems more like an immature teenager, privileged and aware of his gender; stubborn and ready to lie to cover up his decisions when proven wrong.
Long-term development. What makes this film powerful is that it follows the development of the school and the life of the girls over a long enough period of time to uncover not only struggles, but to also be able to look back and realize that in the long term, small steps can become gigantic steps.
The school saw its first generation of graduates in December 2015 and it now welcomes 625 girls, giving them the chance to learn, build confidence, and connect to one another. More than that, the same fathers who were originally opposed to the education of their daughters are now proud of them and amazed at what the girls can achieve.
However, although things are surely changing, the future is still uncertain. Teaching girls in Afghanistan can certainly be seen as an act of courage. But still, the story of Razia Jan’s school is not about that. Rather, it is about how this courage brought hope and fundamental change, both in the lives of the girls and in the mentality of the community. Furthermore, What Tomorrow Brings tells the true story of what one woman’s determination, strength and resilience can create in the world, one step at a time.