In an Afghan woman’s fight to protect education rights

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It only took a few days for the Taliban to seize Afghanistan – and many fear that this takeover could potentially erase two decades of progress for Afghan women. The last time the militant group was in power, from 1996 to 2001, women were denied basic human rights, such as working, going to school and traveling.

At a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday, Taliban officials pledged to respect women this time around, but within the confines of Islamic law. “We ensure that there will be no violence against women,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, according to the New York Times. “No prejudice against women will be allowed, but Islamic values ​​are our framework.” However, the Taliban made no specific promises and many remain skeptical. In some parts of the country girls still go to school, but in other areas women are told not to leave the house without a male parent. In Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan and its largest city, posters of women have been graffiti or repainted.

As Afghans fear for their future under the Taliban, bureaucrats and activists around the world are risking their lives – and their freedoms – to protect women’s rights. One of these activists is Pashtana Durrani, a 23-year-old Afghan educator, executive director of LEARN, a non-profit organization that guarantees women and girls access to education in Afghanistan. Speaking to ELLE.com from an undisclosed location (“I have family around me and I don’t want to put a target in their backs,” she says), Durrani reveals what the takeover Taliban could mean for women and ask people everywhere to stand in solidarity with its mission.

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Have educational opportunities for women in Afghanistan already started to change since the takeover?

Taliban say [we] can do whatever we want: go to educational institutions, work. At the same time, they don’t put it into practice. The daughters of Herat and Kandahar are still at home; they don’t go to their banking job or college. So there are two different stories, two different stories. One is what [the Taliban] try to show. The other is reality. They want legitimacy, but they are not prepared to work for it.

[Editor’s note: In Herat, the Taliban blocked female students and teachers from entering a university campus, according to the New York Times. In Kandahar, nine women working at a bank were escorted home and told not to return to their jobs, according to Al Jazeera.]

Afghan women call for protection of women's rights in Kabul

Afghan women demand protection of women’s rights outside the presidential palace in Kabul on August 17.

Anadolu AgencyGetty Images

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What is your biggest concern about the future of education in Afghanistan?

By the time I was able to walk, the Taliban were already out of the country. [But I know the] stories about what it was back then. It was very dark. Women have gone through so much trauma and suffering. I am focused on protecting our basic rights like education, because we have earned it. You can always require a different dress code, but if a girl is wasting her time [not] work or learn is another story.

Decide [what is best] for girls on behalf of girls without consulting girls it’s very … what do you call it? There are no words. You don’t know what their needs are, you don’t know what they should be doing. Yet here you decide for them. It makes me concerned about all the progress we’ve made and the good things we’ve done so far – all these girls, they have a lot of ambitions. They just want to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to occupy public spaces. And it should be.

How does your organization, LEARN, provide resources to women and girls?

We work with girls [who live in places where they] do not have schools or infrastructure. Many rural girls have been abandoned in the past. We try to provide them with a good general education and STEM education focused on biophysics, chemistry and technology. At the same time, we train our daughters on things like menstrual hygiene management.

We have an offline app where we offer lessons. The materials are accessible via a tablet that we give them. A group of five girls can study using a tablet in any other subject they wish to study. Everything is pre-recorded, pre-downloaded, and you can simply search for books, resources, and videos.

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Will you continue to teach even in the face of potential Taliban resistance?

Sure. We already have a Facebook page where we will be posting lessons and materials for girls and others to access. We will give them stipends so that they can learn online from home. We can even smuggle pills into homes to study. I don’t care who’s in charge. All of these men have been in the driver’s seat for centuries, and they haven’t made very good decisions on behalf of humans. I think it’s time we reclaimed our space. We need to talk and come together to make sure the next generation doesn’t have to worry.

Are you worried about your own safety?

I worry about the future of Afghan girls. That’s all, and nothing else. Am i worried about doing [the Taliban] accept things? Yes. Am I worried about what the future holds? Yes. If people ask me “Are you afraid? Come on, I’m not afraid. I was born in Afghanistan. We’ve been fighting since the day I was born, so overcome it, fight it, right?

I’m trying to raise awareness and ask civilians all over the world to pressure their own leaders to pressure the Taliban to accept women’s rights. Civilians can make a difference, so why not? There are girls who thank me for speaking out, but it’s not like I’m doing this on my own. I have people who are supporting me right now and who are too afraid to come forward more publicly. Someone has to resume the fight. This has been the case with me.

Do you have a message for Afghan women and girls who fear for their future?

[Education] is the only thing I’m willing to fight for until I can. I will make sure that the girls can access their rights one way or another. If they can’t do it legally, we’re going to find a way and we’re going to support each other in solidarity. This time, we won’t let go and we won’t let them dictate and control our lives. In the event of a crisis, solutions must be found. Things like that shouldn’t wear us out. We should keep our fighting spirit because we have been around people who have seen worse and are still alive. We are trying to save a country.

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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