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As Afghan women see shrinking public spaces, one activist reveals how the world can help

Afghan women and girls are anxiously waiting to see what their lives will look like under Taliban rule. Amna Nawaz speaks to Pashtana Durrani, founder and executive director of Learn, a nonprofit she created to ensure women and girls have access to education in Afghanistan, about the future fate of Afghan women. Durrani fled her home in Kandahar when the Taliban took control and is in hiding.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the last time the Taliban was in power, they barred women and girls from working and from going to school.

    One looming question now, now that they're back, will half of Afghanistan's population be able to study and to work freely?

    Earlier today, I spoke to Pashtana Durrani. She's founder and executive director of LEARN. That's a nonprofit she created three years ago to ensure women and girls have access to education in Afghanistan. Durrani fled her home in Kandahar when the Taliban took control there nearly two weeks ago. She is now in hiding. And we are not disclosing her current location for her safety.

    Take me back. It's been now a week since the Taliban took over Kabul. What was that moment like for you when you saw that happening?

  • Pashtana Durrani:

    I mean, like taking Kabul was something that I already — it was like — in the back of your mind, you know that it's going to happen.

    The minute they take Kandahar, it's for sure, the history has proven back in time again and again. The minute they take over Kandahar, they take over Kabul. It's like just a matter of days. In this situation, it was just a matter of hours.

    So, when they took over Kandahar, I was pretty much sure that Afghanistan is gone and we probably have to get ready for all these things.

    Now, I'm going to be honest. It was an emotional three days for me. I think I cried my eyes out. Majority of my interviews, I had very puffy eyes because I kept on crying. And my family, we didn't even know what to pack, what not to pack, what to do, what not to do, who to talk to.

    Like, we left in such a hurry that there was no — like, nobody knew, what is the next step? What are we going to do? What are we going to do about schools, situation, future, anything?

    So it was just a chaotic mess, and it has continued up until to this day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pashtana, you are 23 years old. Is that right?

  • Pashtana Durrani:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, basically, for most of your life, you have only known an Afghanistan in which women are allowed to go to school and the Taliban are not in power and the U.S. has been at war in your country.

    What are you worried life would look like for you moving forward with the Taliban in charge?

  • Pashtana Durrani:

    The fact that is — here's the reason.

    When the Taliban talk on media, they're like, we're going to allow girls to go to school. Today, they said that we are going to allow women to get back to their work. Only, our fighters don't know how to behave with women. So we just need like a window of time.

    For me, the problem is not the fact that the will let or not let. The fact that what they see, they should be standing by, right? It makes me worried, in a sense. Like, every time they use Sharia law, what if they use it weak terms, in loose terms, and then just go with one class and say, OK, this is girls education for you now, right?

    And then the next time, they say women can work, and the only work that we could do would be teaching in a madrasa, right? What if everybody leaves? Afghanistan stays here. Not everybody can be on that plane. What about the economic situation? What about the girls education? What about women working rights? What about civilian rights?

    What about people getting appointed in particular positions with no experience? Taliban are a military force. They don't have any education. They don't — they haven't been through this particular system of like maintaining or like running a country. How will that happen?

    All those things make you worried. Afghanistan is now the hot topic. And, in a week, it won't be, right? What will happen then? All those things make me very much worried about Afghanistan.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, what do you worry about? Because, right now, there is so much focus on Afghanistan, and the U.S. is still there, but they won't be in a matter of days.

    What do you worry will happen when they're gone?

  • Pashtana Durrani:

    When they are gone, the first thing that I'm worried about is the fact that they won't be able to, like, open the schools.

    All those public spaces that are shrinking for women, all those things make me worried, because those are the two things that they don't have a very clear track record in the past. And I don't think we should be trusting them right now, until they walk the talk, until they make sure that people are — women are going to work, girls are going to school, things are happening.

    Then you should be trusting them. And there should be a mechanism in place to follow up with them, not only U.S., all the Western, all throughout the world. The world leaders should follow up with them every now and then. What is happening? What is your literacy rate? What is your work force rate? How are the women involved?

    Those things are very important right now. And the world is watching and the world should make sure that there is a mechanism in place, that, every time they go back on their word, there is a mechanism in place to make them stop from going back on their word when it comes to girls and women.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's something you would like to see in the future.

    But I'd like to ask you, what would be your message today, at this point in time, to U.S. leaders, to President Biden about what you would like to see the U.S. say or do right now?

  • Pashtana Durrani:

    The U.S. right now should focus a lot on the fact that people who are fleeing should be able to flee with more dignity. They should be able to flee with the secure passages. That's the first thing.

    The second thing that the U.S. or Joe Biden or whoever is in charge right now should be focusing on is women, girls' rights. They can do it. And they can do it very easily. It's just picking up a phone, calling them, talking to them, because the Taliban are fishing for legitimacy.

    They want legitimacy from the world leaders. And they need aid. Afghanistan is an aid-independent country. And this all could happen, if only the world leaders tell them right now, except these things, move on with these things, open the schools, let the women go to work, and then figure out political rights and all these different things later on.

    All these public institutions and political institutions, it takes time. But, in the process, schools shouldn't be closed, banks shouldn't be closed, people shouldn't be suffering.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pashtana, you have been an outspoken advocate for women's rights and empowerment and education. You have been an outspoken critic of the Taliban.

    Does that make you a target?

  • Pashtana Durrani:

    It's like, in essence — I'm going to be honest with you.

    In the leadership, they're very polite right now. They want to be very inclusive. They want to fish for legitimacy. So they want to have voices that are against them.

    But, at the same time, they won't entertain those voices, in a sense that, in the future, that we see what is happening. But then there are foot soldiers, right? And foot soldiers are very emotional. They're happy about their victory, and they want to celebrate it.

    And it wouldn't harm them to target a few activists or journalists. And I'm not the first one. They have done that in the past. You know this. I know this.

    But, yes, foot soldiers, which are many, and who are not under the control of all the Taliban, they pretty much want to target voices that would criticize them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And yet you still continue to speak out and give interviews. Why?

  • Pashtana Durrani:

    My university closed down, right? My university closed. People are — my students have been evacuated and they are leaving right now.

    If it was about me, only me, I could have moved to any of the neighboring countries, continued with my studies, and be done with it. And I have the opportunities. But, then again, there is a whole 50 percent. There is 7,000 girls who I have talked to. And I have made sure that they will have a feature.

    At least I have an international platform right now. I could raise a voice for them. I mean, like, I wouldn't forgive someone who wouldn't raise a voice for me if they have access to all those things. And I feel the same responsibility towards them.

    They don't have Internet. They don't have electricity. They don't have the family support right now or, most importantly, access to international media. I have all that, so why not talk about it?

    Because girls are dependent on the public institutions and public schools, not only me. And I should be talking. It's my responsibility. It's my country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pashtana Durrani, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

    And please stay safe.

  • Pashtana Durrani:

    Thank you for having me. Thank you.

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