Afghan activist Pashtana Dorani fights to keep underground schools for girls open despite Taliban restrictions
March 3, 2023
‘Girls go missing, schools are closed down, teachers persecuted’
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2002, the government, international organisations, and various NGOs have seen the importance and need for action in the educational field. As seen by the 2023 UNESCO report, even though number of female enrolment at all educational levels were increasing (almost 20 times for higher education), the combined literacy rate for all female groups by 2021 was only 30%.
But this progress collapsed in the summer of 2021, when US troops were sent back home following ‘peace deals’ that were signed in February 2020 by the Trump administration as an agreement that it would withdraw its forces as long as the Taliban promised to negotiate with the Afghan government and would prevent terrorist groups from taking control. Following these discussions and hopes of cooperation, Afghanistan once again became subject to Taliban rule.
Under the ‘new’ leadership, girls are unable to attend schools and gain qualifications. Even though assured by the Taliban that women’s rights would be respected, these promises did not take long to be broken. Since May 2021, a decree has been passed that women should cover their faces in public and should stay at home unless there is an emergency. In September 2021, the Minister of Women’s Affairs was replaced by the morality police, which is an Islamic religious police founded to ensure that religious laws are being followed and public morality is kept.
But despite the imposed bans, Afghans have remained defiant in the face of restrictions. Pashtana Dorani, who is one of them, has not been deterred from carrying on being “radical” in her approach to providing education in the face of danger.
The human rights activist, knowing the first-hand struggles girls face currently under Taliban rule, has faced “discrimination” and “threats” for her work after setting up the organisation LEARN in 2018, which aims to ‘expand educational opportunities’ in the country by running “illegal” underground schools for girls.
Even though Pashtana was forced into leaving her home, she is still dedicated to ensuring that her schools remain open and lessons are being taught. Even after being forced to flee from her country and finding refuge in the US, she still has her eye on the target.
“All my work consumes me, I work more than 17 hours a day, to ensure the schools stay open”, said Pashtana.
Currently, LEARN has three schools that are operating and 180 students that are attendees. Due to bans imposed by the government, numbers have been going down.
Pashtana commented: “You’re sending your daughter to school in a country where school is illegal. There’s always going to be a threat, there’s always going to be a problem. Girls do go missing. Schools are closed down, teachers are persecuted, but it’s something in general, I cannot claim that it’s only happening with us. It’s happening generally. All the teachers are under scrutiny. And all the teachers are under pressure.”
Others in the country face similar issues. Professor Ismail Mashal, who runs a private university in Kabul, went viral after tearing up his academic records on live television and started appearing on local media almost daily despite many threats.
He is willing to sacrifice his life for 20 million Afghan women and girls and for the future of his two children and urges men to “stand up and defend” women’s rights
Pashtana, a global youth representative for Amnesty International, is urging the UN to “start taking action” and listen to people who are working locally as she believes not much has changed in the past 20 years.
She believes locals are the key to driving change, saying “I think the UN has to stop acting like this mediator and start taking action” and how “the best thing that they could do right now is just invest in tools like offline learning, like teacher salaries in emergencies, and really listen to people who actually are working on the ground.”
While schoolgirls in Kabul and other provinces protested their denial from education, the international community responded to these restrictions with only condemnation with the UN and US department of states expressing their concerns. The latter threatened to cut off aid to Afghanistan.
by Pashtana Dorani & Tamara Bralo
288 pp., $28.00
No matter the downfalls that Pashtana Dorani has faced, she managed to stand up and continue her fight towards providing education to those who were denied it.
Pashtana has also penned her protest into a book, which will be coming out in May in the United States.
Last To Eat, Last To Learn: My Life in Afghanistan Fighting to Educate Women explores the educational system in Afghanistan and her journey alongside it.
The book describes the struggles that Pashtana has faced, such as not knowing when she will see her family next, losing her friends from the university, losing her staff members due to her need to flee the country, and facing hardship in providing education “illegally”.
Yet, she declares the book to be “also about survival” – and how her journey shaped her into the woman she is today.
Following the announcements in November 2022 when women got banned from entering parks, sport centres and female only-public baths, Mahbooba Seraj, an Afghan human rights activist, points out that women of Afghanistan do not exist for the Taliban – “we are erased”.
Education for girls provided legally is only seen as a distant dream. When bans were first imposed on girls’ and women’s educations, classrooms were filled with pain and lecturer’s rooms “were filled with the aching noise of female students crying in agony as they learn the heartbreaking news that they are no longer allowed to attend university”.
For people like Pashtana, their work is never done. Having dedicated her life for other girls and women’s rights to education and leaving her own life behind.
“I haven’t met my family in months”, she explains. “I don’t know when I’ll see them. Imagine working so hard all your life to be able to work to educate people in your country. And then one day, you’re told you have to leave or you won’t live.”