By: ALINA SELYUKH
NPR’s Alina Selyukh speaks with Pashtana Durrani, executive director of LEARN, an education nonprofit in Afghanistan that helps Afghan girls access education.
ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:
Removing women from public life was one of the first orders of business when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan almost one year ago. This includes keeping female students out of classrooms. And the result has been devastating to a generation of Afghan girls and women who, for decades, fought for the right to access education. So what now? Pashtana Durrani is the executive director of LEARN. It’s a nonprofit based in Afghanistan that helps girls access education. She joins us now. Welcome.
PASHTANA DURRANI: Thank you.
SELYUKH: So NPR spoke to you almost one year ago when the U.S. ended its occupation of Afghanistan and the Taliban took control of Kabul. I want to play a clip from that conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DURRANI: In my country and the girls that I talk to, they love going to school. They wake up. They are ready. You know, I – when I was a kid, I used to get ready in the night when I used to go to the school in the morning. And now that you talk about the fact that these girls won’t be able to access that right, not be able to celebrate it, it just breaks your heart.
SELYUKH: Since that interview, many Afghan women have struggled to attend university classes. High school girls have been kept home from school. Does it feel to you like all the progress you and other Afghan women fought for is lost?
DURRANI: Well, it’s not about just being lost. It’s also about the fact that Afghanistan is the only country right now that is stopping its own girls from going to school. But at the same time, yes, there is a sense of grief and loss.
SELYUKH: You yourself only graduated from university in May. Am I right?
SELYUKH: Do you worry that your generation of educated women might be the last?
DURRANI: I’m going to be honest. Like sometimes, yes. That’s something that comes to your mind. In the ’90s, the Taliban were in power. Women were still running secret schools. And the same is happening right now. We might be the last generation, when it comes to structured, accepted learning where our degrees might have been accredited by the Education Ministry from Afghanistan. But I do believe that learning will continue in many forms.
SELYUKH: These underground girls’ schools that you just referenced that used to be prevalent in the ’90s – are they back up and running now?
DURRANI: Sort of. So it’s – it probably might not be the same structures or the same strategies, the way they were in the ’90s. The different models that we are studying right now is that when there are a lot of digital classes and schools that we are seeing. The second trend is, like, when teachers teach them in-person, within the houses. The third is that they send homework packages to each other’s houses. And the fourth one is, like, they study through radio lessons. So these are all different trends that are coming right now.
SELYUKH: You have left Afghanistan – right here now in Massachusetts. You’re working at Wellesley College, but much of your family is still back home in Afghanistan. What has your new reality been like with this new work but also this huge transition for you?
DURRANI: The new reality is that I work in two different time zones. In the morning, I am on Eastern Time zones. On the evenings, I am on Afghanistan time zone, where I work with my staff and talk to my family and friends. Other than that, I’m going to be honest, as a woman, as a person who used to live with a family, who had a good, fulfilled life, now I’m, like, lost. Like, I not only left my mother and my siblings back home. I also cannot access my friend circle anymore. I don’t have anyone to talk to. A year ago, I had an independent country and identity. And I had a passport that I could leave the country and come back to, you know? So there’s a lot of emotional trauma that comes with that. And I’m still trying to get through this.
SELYUKH: You’re still able to run your nonprofit, LEARN. How has that been working out? And what are some of the challenges that you’ve faced since the Taliban took complete control of the country?
DURRANI: Right now, we are trying to expand in different regions of Afghanistan. We have four schools that are fully sustainable – Alhamdulillah – right now, and 400 girls can get education. They are all enrolled, and from age 13 to 18, that’s the level where the girls are not allowed to be in schools. And most importantly, I think the best part is that we just had our first batch graduated, and they’re all right now seeking jobs. Most of them are on jobs. And that gives me sort of that motivation to continue because we are Afghans, and at the end of the day, we do know how to fight and how to continue with whatever we do.
SELYUKH: And most of these jobs that they’re getting – are they following the areas that they studied?
DURRANI: Yes. Yes. Mostly, we focus all our – on digital skills. And once they’re graduated, we make sure that they end up in a digital market so that their security, their safety is, like, put first, and they can access it from home.
SELYUKH: So they can work remotely.
SELYUKH: Very interesting. What would you like the international community to do to help Afghan girls and women right now?
DURRANI: I think the most important thing I would want the international community to understand is the fact that meeting Taliban doesn’t help. Throughout this whole year, one thing I saw was all these white journalists, all these people who actually made the Taliban the bad people, you know, post-9/11, were actually meeting them, were actually documenting them. And they were not talking about their grievances. They were not talking about the loss of people. And the international community also plays a part in it. International community always goes and negotiates with them. They won’t put them on sanctions list. They won’t ask them, when will the Taliban open the schools? But they will always coddle them. So I think the most important thing would be to stop pleasing Taliban.
SELYUKH: Pashtana Durrani is the executive director of education nonprofit LEARN. Thank you for speaking with us today.
DURRANI: Of course. Thank you for having me.