Pashtana Zalmai Khan Durrani has long been an advocate for women and girls across Afghanistan, and she does not plan on letting the Taliban interfere with her mission of providing education for the most vulnerable. 

What You Need To Know

  • Pashtana Durrani, 23, has helped educate hundreds of Afghan women through her nonprofit LEARN, which she founded three years ago

  • Durrani, who is currently hiding from the Taliban in an undisclosed location, told Spectrum News she will continue to educate women and girls despite the danger

  • The Taliban has pledged to respect women’s rights within the “framework of Islamic law,” but Durrani and other Afghans are doubtful the group will keep its promise

  • Durrani is calling on the international community to stand by the women and girls who are unable to leave the country, and who fear seeing the little rights they gained slip away

Durrani is currently hiding in an undisclosed location from the Taliban, whose swift takeover of the country shocked not only Afghans, but the entire world. Durrani on Friday spoke with Spectrum News about her organization LEARN, which she founded in an effort to educate women and girls in rural parts of the country.

“There are always risks with things like these, in a country where [the] political system is not in place, where every other day there is a pinch,” Durrani said. Her own family and friends have raised concerns that Durrani’s outspoken activism will put a target on her back, but she believes educated women represent hope for a better Afghanistan.

“Not all the military men who fought for two decades can run the country forever, right? You do need educated women in the future,” she said. “So we are just going to stick to that for now.”

Durrani started LEARN after a young female cousin wanted to learn how to use a computer, but wasn’t sure how to access the information. Both Durrani and her cousin noticed the “huge need for digital literacy” across the country, particularly in areas with little to no access to the internet. 

By uploading teaching materials and lesson plans that can be accessed offline, LEARN has helped over 700 girls gain an education in a country with one of the lowest literacy rates for women worldwide.

“It has been an amazing journey,” Durrani said of her company, which she started nearly three years ago. “There are students that I have met that want to be journalists, want to be writers, want to be psychiatrists, want to be doctors, want to be leaders.”

Until recently, those dreams seemed possible. The future, for Durrani’s students and many other women across the country, is now unclear. 

“You have to understand that people's lives are at stake, their dreams, their goals,” Durrani said, adding: “It doesn't matter if the Taliban are in power or not, girls are going to continue to learn. That's a priority.” 

The Taliban has pledged to respect women’s rights within the “framework of Islamic law,” according to chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. The group said women will be allowed to work in select offices of the government, and have handed out Islamic headscarves to young girls attending school. 

It is clear the Taliban is projecting a much different image than in the late 1990s, when women were barred from the vast majority of public activities and had most rights stripped. 

Durrani, who is only 23 years old, does not remember a time before the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan began soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. But she says the Taliban’s actions in the past week do not give her much hope that the group has progressed in the past twenty years. 

One young woman who contacted LEARN was attempting to avoid a smuggler, who Durrani said wanted to marry the girl off to a Taliban fighter. Another woman recalled being lashed by members of the Taliban for wearing heeled shoes when the group was last in power over two decades ago.

“I'm gonna trust them when they appoint a woman in their leadership,” Durrani said of the Taliban. “I don't trust them. Because they're not running a country. They're keeping it as a hostage right now.” 

Beyond her grassroots work in Afghanistan, Durrani is calling on the international community to stand by the women and girls who are unable to leave the country, and who fear seeing the little rights they gained slip away. 

“It's time for the world to stand in solidarity with Afghan civilians, Afghan women and Afghan girls,” Durrani told Spectrum News, saying world leaders must pressure the Taliban into “accepting women's educational rights.” 

Speaking directly to President Joe Biden, Durrani said: “Pick up that phone that you have in your office, call [the Taliban], call them now. Tell them to accept the civilians there, please.” 

“Not everyone can be on a flight to America, right? But at least the people who are staying, let them have the freedoms, the limited freedoms” Afghans enjoyed for the past several years, Durrani added. 

Since last Sunday, the United States has evacuated at least 13,000 people from Afghanistan, White House officials said Friday, with more expected in the coming days. 

Durrani will not be on a plane out of the country. She will remain in Afghanistan, risking her life to offer a better future to her fellow women.