Pashtana Durrani Won’t Let Afghanistan’s Girls Disappear

In this photo illustration, an Afghan woman wearing a white headscarf and a pink, red, and green embroidered top poses for a portrait. Over her left shoulder is an image of a yellow book cover with a portrait of the same woman on it.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: George Kerrigan

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan two and a half years ago, the regime barred girls from continuing their education beyond sixth grade. But today, at least 300 students are being taught through clandestine schools and remote learning thanks to the efforts of Afghan human-rights activist Pashtana Durrani. Back in 2018, Durrani founded LEARN, an organization that supplied solar-powered tablets preloaded with lessons to schools with the most severe teacher shortages. After fleeing the country during the takeover and landing outside Boston as a visiting fellow at the Wellesley Centers for Women, the 26-year-old now spearheads the group’s efforts to teach girls in defiance of the ban from abroad.

Displaced by decades of war like millions of Afghans before her, Durrani grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan. “Girls around me were going hungry and illiterate; most of them had never left the camp,” she writes in her new memoir, Last to Eat, Last to Learn: My Life in Afghanistan Fighting to Educate Women. “Once they marry, they don’t even leave their homes. For too many of them, death is the only opportunity for mobility.” Durrani’s family inspired her to go into education: Her father opened up a community school for girls out of their home, where several of her relatives taught. On her first trip to Afghanistan, she found a lack of education opportunities available and watched a peer struggle to hold a pencil correctly. “A single visit there showed me that the brick-and-mortar thing just wasn’t going to work,” she writes. “Girls there needed an education system that could survive twists of fate.”

Durrani’s activism against the Taliban and the Afghan government led to a targeted bomb attack and numerous death threats. “I became an expert at ignoring the chaos around me and concentrated on work instead,” she writes. She’s kept up that single-minded focus in exile, helping LEARN deliver preloaded e-readers, portable batteries, and generators to students, as well as conduct remote learning through secure technology to evade Taliban detection. “The next time somebody goes on-camera from a western country and says we are uneducated and we don’t give a damn about our girls, we’ll have something to prove them wrong,” she tells the Cut.

Your memoir highlights the events in your upbringing that led you to establish your nonprofit. What parts of your story were most important to share, and what motivated you to write a book?
When you talk about Afghanistan, all you hear is, “Oh, this person must be a real conservative who probably doesn’t believe in educational rights or human rights. They probably have no conditioning towards education, especially women’s education.” My father did his best to educate me. There are millions of fathers who did the same thing for their daughters. It’s just that western media has portrayed Afghans as savages, as uneducated people that needed saving. I wanted to make sure that history remembers we did our best.

You refer to Afghanistan’s “disappearing girls” throughout the book. Disappearing, of course, can mean vanishing physically from the streets and out of the public sphere. In what other ways have you witnessed the disappearance of girls around you?
In the book, I talk about this other person that my father loved and cherished. She got married off, and then I never heard from her again. You know people and then, all of a sudden, they just don’t exist anymore. They disappear from the face of the earth, they disappear from school, from the street you played in. I kid you not about how many emails I get from girls who beg me to support their TOEFL tests because their family is forcing them into marrying someone, or from girls who want to leave the country. It’s not only families forcing their girls into marriage, but girls being forced into it because there’s nothing else to do. Not only marriage steals them, but the lack of opportunity, the lack of schooling, the lack of ambition. It is so heartbreaking to witness.

What are some misconceptions the West holds about education and Afghan girls, and what do you wish people understood better?
If Americans could save Afghanistan, it would have been saved by now. It has to come from within. American policy-makers look at numbers and say, “Okay. A million girls went to school, that should be good enough. But as an educator, I can attest that more than 80 percent of those girls cannot write their name. Why? Because of poor teaching. There were no teachers. The schools were never open in the first place. The last regime would fake all these numbers and tell the international community that these schools are open and that this is how much you should be funding them, but when you would go to that place, no school would exist.

The second thing would be when people think that the U.S. introduced human rights to Afghanistan. Women already had access to voting in 1919. Women could run for elections, they could become politicians. In the 1920s, we had the first education minister, Queen Soraya. She was the one who educated the king on girls’ education.

I also wouldn’t shy away from the fact that I am a U.S. Embassy scholar. I went to the American University of Afghanistan and I got educated there. I took initiative and I did my work, and that’s the reason I’m still active in Afghanistan, whereas all the foreign-education projects are shut down.

Are your schools still meeting in person? What does it look like trying to continue operations under the current regime?
We have around 314 students, going on 400 within the next few months. We just started enrolling the next class. We employ more than 30 women right now and our staff is around 45 people. We are trying to find different ways to engage with our students and make sure that their safety comes first. Students go to these locations at a specific time, but in shifts, because we cannot fit all of them at once — you will attract attention. It’s a hybrid. We meet in person, some of the classes are online.

I do struggle with the fact that we work in different time zones. There’s always this worry about the teachers, the fact that we have to change our spaces. We don’t have stability where our schools can continue in one space for more than a few months. It’s kind of like life on the road. You never know when you have to change. We start classes, and then we get a notice that we are being noticed by the Taliban surveillance team.

What are some joyous stories and milestones you can share?
The most fun I had was going back home. I went to Helmand Province and Kandahar. We have this program where we can get girls diplomas now. I was talking to them and asking, “What do you want to be?” Most of them wanted to be doctors. Then there was this one girl who was like, “I want to be a journalist.” That was fascinating to me, because Afghanistan doesn’t have any female journalists left. The ones that are, they’re in hiding and don’t work openly. And here was this girl, barely 15, and she wants to be a journalist. Some kids don’t want to give up on their work. They don’t want to think that the current regime can limit their opportunity.

As Gaza and Ukraine news dominate western media, what are your thoughts on the human-rights situation in Afghanistan? Does it seem that the global attention is shifting away from Afghan women and girls, and what impact does this have on your current work?
I have noticed within the U.S., they really want to move on from Afghanistan. They look at any other crisis and compare it. I remember all these big politicians comparing Afghans to Ukrainians. That was disheartening because we are not like Ukrainians, and the Ukrainian conflict and Afghan conflict are way too different.

I remember talking to a friend on a panel — there were other Ukrainian refugees, too, talking with us. A Ukrainian refugee started crying. A friend of mine who has been in the special forces, like, a top commando, looks at me and says, “Our conflict is so old that it has become a norm. We don’t cry the same way, or ask for help the way other countries in conflict do.” When I look at Gaza and Ukraine, I relate to that suffering. People expect Afghans to be at war. Our suffering is so normalized and desensitized. Everybody wants to move on, and for the governments, I understand that was their game plan in the first place. But I’m not ready to just live my life in the U.S. and forget about everything. I’m going to do what I like to do.

What are your hopes for the future of LEARN? And what do you want Afghan girls to know?
My goal is that by 2025, we have schools in all 34 provinces. And, someday, around the world. Even now, we are trying to expand further, to sustain the current schools, to employ more teachers so we can accept more students, and to make sure that women and young girls can access prenatal, postnatal, and menstrual hygiene-management health care.

The more we grow, the more the world tries to tame us. When we were kids, we would be like, “I’m gonna be the president.” I grew up in a house that was like, Yeah, you can be! My father told me that. Any young girl or woman who’s reading, I really want them to believe in themselves. Stop cleaning yourself up for others, that’s all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Making Sure Afghanistan’s Girls Don’t Disappear