It took just a few short days for the Taliban to seize Afghanistan—and many worry the 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, like working, attending school, and traveling.
At a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday, Taliban officials pledged to respect women this time around, but within the confines of Islamic law. “We assure 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 the Islamic values are our framework.” However, the Taliban hasn’t made any specific promises—and many remain skeptical. In some areas of the country, girls are still attending school, but in other areas, women are reportedly being told not to leave home without a male relative. In Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan and its largest city, posters of women have been graffitied or painted over.
As Afghans fear for their futures under Taliban rule, bureaucrats and activists all over the world are risking their lives—and their freedoms—to protect the rights of women. One of those activists is 23-year-old Afghan educator Pashtana Durrani, the executive director of LEARN, a nonprofit that ensures women and girls have 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 on their back,” she says), Durrani reveals what the Taliban’s takeover could mean for women—and asks people everywhere to stand in solidarity with her mission.
Have educational opportunities for women in Afghanistan already started to change since the takeover?
The Taliban is saying [we] can do anything we want—go to educational institutions, work. At the same time, they’re not putting it into practice. The girls in Herat and Kandahar are still at home; they’re not going to their bank jobs or to university. So, there are two different narratives, two different stories. One is what [the Taliban] is trying to show. The other is the reality. They want the legitimacy, but they're not willing 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.]
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 of what it was like back then. It was very dark. Women have been through so much trauma and suffering. My focus is on protecting our basic rights like education—because we have earned it. You can always push for a different dress code, but if a girl wastes her time [not] working or learning, that is a different story.
Deciding [what is best] for girls on behalf of girls without consulting girls is 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 are deciding for them. It makes me concerned about all the progress we have made and good things that we have 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 take up the public spaces. And that should be the case.
How does your organization, LEARN, provide resources to women and girls?
We work with girls [who live in places where they] don’t have schools or infrastructure. A lot of rural girls have been abandoned in the past. We try to get them a good general education and STEM education focusing on biophysics, chemistry, and technology. At the same time, we give our girls training on things like menstrual hygiene management.
We have an offline app where we offer courses. The materials can be accessed via tablet, which we give them. A group of five girls can study through one tablet in every other subject that they want to study. It’s all pre-recorded, pre-uploaded, and you can just look for books, resources, and videos.
Will you continue to teach even in the face of potential resistance from the Taliban?
Of course. We already have a Facebook page where we’re going to upload courses and materials so that girls and other people can access it. We will give them stipends so that they can learn online from home. We can even smuggle tablets into houses for studying. I don’t care who is in charge. All these men have been in charge for centuries and they haven’t made very good decisions on behalf of humans. I think it’s time we claim our space. We need to talk and come together to make sure that the next generation doesn’t have to worry.
Are you worried about your own safety?
I’m worried about the future of Afghan girls. That’s it, and nothing else. Am I worried about making [the Taliban] accept things? Yes. Am I worried what the future holds? Yes. If people ask me “Are you afraid?” Come on, I’m not afraid. I was born in Afghanistan. We have been fighting since the day I was born, so get over it, fight it, right?
I’m trying to raise awareness and ask civilians all over the world to put pressure on their own leaders to pressure the Taliban to accept women’s rights. Civilians can make a difference, so why not? There are girls who are thanking me for speaking out, but it’s not like I’m doing this all by myself. I have people who are supporting me right now who are too afraid to come forward more publicly. Someone has to pick up the fight. That has been the case with me.
Do you have a message for Afghan women and girls who are fearful for their futures?
[Education] is the one thing that I’m willing to put up a fight for until I can. I’m going to make sure that girls can access their rights one way or the other. If they cannot do it legally, we are going to find a way, and we are going to stand by each other in solidarity. This time we won’t abandon each other and we won’t let them dictate and police our lives. When crisis comes, we have to find solutions. Things like this shouldn’t wear us down. We should keep our fighting sprit because we have been around people who have been through worse and we are still alive. We are trying to save a country.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.