Theater of Cruelty

Afghan girl power

What Tomorrow Brings
Regissør: Beth Murphy

If you want to run a girls' school in Afghanistan, you may need to check the water supply for poison every morning. Is it worth it?


Education for women is a sensitive issue in Afghanistan. It is common with attacks by rebels who oppose women being educated – but often the most fundamental challenges lie within the families of the girls in question and the community they are part of. It may seem pointless to try to find solutions to this predicament, but American documentary Beth Murphy's film What Tomorrow Brings tells something else. The film brings hope to what often appears as a hopeless struggle, and makes you realize that the real danger lies not in the struggle itself, but rather in the pity weariness we succumb to when we experience difficulties we do not perceive as our own.

It is precisely this wear and tear on the engagement director Murphy wants to do something about. The footage of What Tomorrow Brings stretched over a period of eight years, recounting daily life at Zabuli Education Center, a school for girls in the Deh Sabz area, not far from Kabul. During the interview at the Movies That Matter festival in The Hague, Murphy said: "I wanted the film to be a very close-up portrait of the teachers and students, both in their homes and in school." And that's exactly what the film has become.

sister cabinet

The school was founded by Razia Jan, an Afghan woman who, after decades in the United States, decided to return to Afghanistan and help rebuild the country. Jan was brave and stubborn enough to create a school for girls, despite the local pressure to create a school for boys instead. From the very beginning, she needed the consent of the village elders – a group of low-education men – who told her that there were men who should be educated, since they are "Afghanistan's backbone." Jan refused to give up and replied that if men are the backbone, women are the eyes of the land and without them all men are blind. “The struggles are different, but the goals are always the same,” Jan says, referring to the universal goal of all teachers is to give their students the best opportunities in life. Nevertheless, the challenges that arise on the way to such a goal can be very different. At the Zabuli Education Center, the water is checked every morning to make sure it is not poisoned, and schoolgirls' bags are checked at the entrance.

To get his nuptials, he promised his own daughter to his new father-in-law.

But if there is one word that characterizes the atmosphere in the film, it is "sisterhood". There is a bond between the girls and between them and their teachers. In many ways, the center is much more than just a school: “For every one of these girls, the school is a kind of paradise. At home, they are always scolded or given ear pockets by their brothers because they do not serve them water, or their uncles are angry because they enter the room without covering their hair. The message they always get is that they are not good enough. And then they come to school and we tell them that they are the best and that we are here to help them. It makes all the difference and makes the girls grow and find the strength they need to assert themselves, ”says Jan.

The girls seem to live in two separate worlds at the same time. By portraying their lives from different angles, the camera inevitably testifies to the overwhelming power of men – and the discrimination they expose to women, which reduces women to mere objects.

Occasionally, the men's concerns appear as ridiculous: A group of local men are concerned that the windows of the new school are not placed high enough on the building so that the girls can be seen from the street. Other times, the dangers associated with their power can be painfully obvious. When the father of one of the schoolgirls takes a 16-year-old to his second wife, he keeps his daughter away from school; to get his nuptials he promised his new father-in-law his own daughter as a bride.

"For every one of these girls, the school is a kind of paradise."

Throughout the film, it seems evident that this particular form of patriarchal power rests on an indisputable social order, and not on the inner strength of these specific men. Instead of appearing powerful, everyone appears as immature, privileged teenagers, perfectly clean with their gender; stubborn and ready to lie when it turns out that their decisions were wrong.

Development over time

What makes this film so powerful is that it follows the development of the school and the girls' lives over a sufficiently long period of time. In this way, it not only manages to uncover current battles, but also to look back and experience that in the long run, small steps can turn out to be gigantic.

Razia Jan's school graduated with her first litter in December 2015, and now has 625 girl students who will have the opportunity to learn, become confident and bond with each other. We also see that the same fathers who were originally against their daughters having education, are now proud of the girls and amazed at what they can achieve.

Still: Although much is certainly changing, the future is still uncertain. Educating girls in Afghanistan can probably be seen as a courageous act. But the story of this school and its students is not about this. Rather, it is about how this courage brought hope and fundamental changes both in girls' lives and in society's mentality. Furthermore, What Tomorrow Brings tells us the true story of what one woman's determination, strength and endurance can accomplish in the world, one step at a time.

Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Nita is a freelance journalist and critic for Ny Tid.

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