The Current

As Taliban offers reassurances for women, Afghan educator warns words must be measured against actions

Educator and activist Pashtana Durrani is determined to fight for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, in the face of the resurgent Taliban's takeover of her country.

Now is the time to fight for Afghan women's rights, says Pashtana Durrani

Pashtana Durrani is the founder and executive director of LEARN Afghanistan, a charity focused on education. She is pushing for the women's rights to be preserved as the Taliban retakes Afghanistan. (Submitted by Pashtana Durrani)

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The Taliban has said women and girls will be allowed to access education, work and even partake in government in Afghanistan, but one advocate says those words must be matched with action.

"There are layers of what Taliban say, and what they are putting in practice. What sorts of rights are we talking? What sorts of jobs are we talking?" said Pashtana Durrani, a teacher and the founder and executive director of LEARN Afghanistan, a charity focused on education. 

"These are all layers that need to be unfolded, that need to be asked ... if we let it go, it's going to become chaotic, suffocating, as it has been in the past," she told The Current's guest host Nora Young.

Amid the withdrawal of U.S. forces and other allies, a resurgent Taliban has retaken control of Afghanistan in recent weeks. On Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, which culminated in the capture of the capital of Kabul.

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Before the U.S. invasion in 2001, Taliban rule was aligned with a strict interpretation of Shariah law, with women largely confined to their homes and excluded from education. But on Tuesday the group urged women to join its government, saying it "doesn't want women to be victims," and that they "should be in government structure according to Shariah law."

Durrani said now is the time to interrogate those promises "because if you don't speak now, you will never be able to speak again."

She spoke to Young the work to safeguard women's rights. Here is part of their conversation.

How are you feeling as you're watching this unfold? 

I'm going to be honest, I cried my eyes out. I probably had swollen eyes on all my interviews, because of all the tears that I had to shed.

[But] now I'm thinking how to, like, push for a fight … Because right now it's not sufficient to be weak. Right now is not the time to let them take the charge. Right now is the time to put your foot down and fight for it, because if you don't speak now, you will never be able to speak again. 

We keep hearing them say that no one is going to get hurt, that women will be allowed to go to school. Do people trust that, that this will be peaceful?

It's peaceful in the sense that nobody's dying, right? But then in a sense, what is life without its rights, without its freedoms? For the fact that we have earned these rights, for the fact that we won't have the livelihood, we won't have access to all of these rights, then what is life without all these things?

What are you hearing from students? Will they be able to keep learning? Do they have confidence they'll be able to keep learning? 

In Kandahar right now, the schools are closed, so I'm going to wait on how they react when the schools open in the next two weeks. So it's a confusing state, [the Taliban] said that, "We are going to let girls study, we are going to let them work." But then what sort of work are we talking about?

They escorted the women in Azizi Bank to home, [and said] that they should ask the male family members to fill in for them. I mean, like someone who studied geography cannot come in and fill in for an accountant, right? 

There are layers of what Taliban say and what they are putting in practice. What sorts of rights are we talking? What sorts of jobs are we talking? What about educational rights? Are you going to use Koranic or Islamic learning to be used as an alternative for general education? Are you going to use teaching as the only method, and also Islamic teaching as the only profession that would be acceptable for women? Or the health workers as the only profession acceptable for women? 

So you have to understand that these are all layers that need to be unfolded, that need to be asked. And we need to do this right now ... this is the moment, if we let it go, it's going to become chaotic, suffocating, as it has been in the past.

But how do you do that? How do you confront that chaotic situation where it seems like there's not even a lot of plain information?

I'm trying to get my words out. I have been doing this for the past full week and I'll continue to do so until we get a reply, because I am not the only one. There are many like me who are afraid to come out, or who don't have the platform. So it's either me talking or nobody's talking. Of course I don't want to say that, "Oh, I'm the only one," like with a saviour complex.

There are a lot of amazing women who are doing amazing jobs and who are already doing an amazing job at raising awareness and fighting this fight. But for now, we need to highlight this issue and also ask the international community to pressure the Taliban into accepting the educational rights and women's rights as a whole.

I take your point that there are other people speaking up, but what draws you personally to speak so publicly about this with so many people afraid to speak up right now?

The fact that Afghan women have suffered in the past. 

When I used to be a kid ... everything was given to me on a plate. But for my grandmother, she had to abandon her house, she had to abandon her country. 

For me, it's very important to understand that what I have, a majority of the women wouldn't. And it's important that I have the privilege of all this access to rights, so I should be using it and I should feel the responsibility for making sure that all these women access it. It shouldn't be something elite.

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What does this mean for you? I mean, you're a young woman. Where will you go from here? Will you stay in Afghanistan? 

For now, I'm staying put. I am not one person. I have 7,000 students, I have 30 principals. I have more than a few hundred teachers, who depend on me. So I have to stay put, I just can't abandon everything. So for now, yes, sticking to Afghanistan. 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Kaity Brady and Ryan Chatterjee. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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