Meet Pashtana Durrani, the Afghan activist running a network of underground schools that teach girls to read

Even in exile, Afghan activist Pashtana Durrani aims to educate girls and women in her homeland — and in conflict zones around the world.
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Pashtana Durrani is the founder of LEARN, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to educating and mentoring girls and women in Afghanistan.

Courtesy of LEARN

“The Taliban claim that the country is at peace. But what good does this peace bring if a daughter of your own nation cannot go to school?”

That’s the question asked by 27-year-old Pashtana Durrani, founder of LEARN, a nongovernmental organization that aims to mentor and educate communities, especially girls, in rural Afghanistan.

A third-generation refugee from Afghanistan, Durrani grew up in a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan. Her father, a tribe leader, valued education and set up a community school in his home, where her aunt and mother taught girls. Whatever Durrani learned at school, she came home and also taught the girls.

But when her family was able to return to Afghanistan, Durrani quickly realized that she was lucky: Many rural Afghan communities had no educational facilities for girls. While Durrani had long dreamt of studying at Oxford, she turned down a scholarship and instead dedicated her life to educating Afghan girls. 

Since she founded LEARN in 2018, more than 7,000 youth have been educated through its innovative solar-powered tablets, which are preloaded with LEARN’s curriculum and work even in remote regions. Her work has been lauded by Amnesty International and the Malala Fund, but her outspoken activism has also made her a target of the Taliban, which banned girls’ secondary schools after its rise to power. 

After regional security services informed her of plots to assassinate her, Durrani fled Kandahar for the United States. She’s continuing her work in Afghanistan undaunted, coordinating a network of underground schools in undisclosed locations while in exile. 

Durrani spoke to Analyst News about her new memoir, Last To Eat, Last To Learn: My Life in Afghanistan Fighting to Educate Women, which will be published on Feb. 20 and was written as her nation fell to the Taliban once again. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Afghan women in a LEARN classroom.
Courtesy of LEARN

What’s the current situation for girls’ education in Afghanistan, and how is your work adapting to this new reality?

It’s one of those tragic events that is unfolding as we speak. We’re seeing millions of girls out of school and only a fraction in these underground schools. It breaks my heart that we have to resort to this and have to feel illegal for providing education, but it is what it is. 

At LEARN, we’re constantly making efforts to include more girls. We are now working with radio to provide lessons to girls for one hour in Pashto and Dari [two of the languages spoken in Afghanistan], and it’s in all 34 provinces. We have a SIM card company that helps us provide our grade 7 to 12 content for free. The SIMs turn on and send links to all the users who can click on that link and continue learning. It’s at no cost, and it works even without the internet.

Other than this, we are conducting online and in-person classes. There are girls who come to our classes to learn with us. We’re experimenting with satellites right now and hope to establish those as well. We’re doing a lot. But at the same time, it’s not enough. 

We might be educating around 300 girls, but millions of girls are out of school. Women can rarely take a walk alone and have recently gone missing for wearing the wrong color of a hijab. It’s not just gender apartheid. We are being persecuted for our gender, which was assigned by God — and our religion explicitly says it has to be respected. But then there’s the Taliban, who think a woman is an enemy.

The Taliban have been in power for two decades in your region. Now that the Taliban are in power all over the country, how has that affected your organization?

A couple of days ago, I got a call from my deputy director saying the Taliban won’t renew our license and have revoked our credentials. I sent my deputy to Kabul to investigate. He enters the office and the officials ask him which organization he’s coming from. He says LEARN, and the official says, “Oh, Pashtana Durrani, where is she?” They know about me. They’ve been keeping intelligence files on me. 

Anyway, the official says that Pashtana has to come herself. I’m like, “I will only come if the minister is willing to marry me, because he’s na-mahram [a non-relative]!” – they’re the ones who keep on making such a fuss over women working! Plus, I know the minute I land, I’m getting arrested, kidnapped or murdered. 

Eventually someone from our tribe gave us a contact, who said that the officials have asked me to record a one-minute video declaring that I have resigned from LEARN and have appointed a male as a successor, and then they will provide the credentials.

We’re doing a lot. But at the same time, it’s not enough. We might be educating around 300 girls, but millions of girls are out of school.

This is how it is with the Taliban in power. It’s like a Tom and Jerry show where they do something to anger me and then are worried that I’m going to do the same to them. It’s a weird world that I’m trying to navigate in. 

The good thing is there’s a lot of community support. I was recently working on our annual reports and it gives me so much joy to see how many lives we have impacted. So many people have emailed me to get into a class.

I have cousins who didn’t like me when I was a kid; one of them just emailed me saying he has two daughters who haven’t been in school since 2021, and asked if I can get them admitted into my school. When I’m having a bad day, I think that someone who didn’t like me before now trusts their daughters with me. It’s a good feeling.

Your memoir is called “Last to Eat, Last to Learn.” Can you explain the significance of this title?

According to our culture, the eldest daughter is always the one who has to make the most sacrifices. My mother was the eldest and was married off at 14 years old so that her family could feel better and financially safe. You see other girls and women, who will take care of the men first, then the women, kids, and everyone else, and then focus on themselves.

The same thing happened with schools. All the kids will be doing their lessons, but the oldest daughter will always be worried about getting back home, completing chores and taking care of her younger siblings. That made me realize that it’s always the oldest daughter who is last to eat because she doesn’t have the time. She’s always the last to be picked up to go to school because she has to take care of everyone before taking care of herself. 

Tell us more about what inspired you to step up to help educate girls in rural Afghanistan.

I was very headstrong when I was growing up. As a teenager, it was hard to grasp that you have to wait for someone to come and be your savior, someone who could rescue you. I was — and still am — naive, where I think I can conquer the whole world. I thought I could solve all the literacy issues in Afghanistan, especially because my father made it seem easy. 

When I was young, my father opened a school in our house. Now that I’ve grown up and am a professional educator, I understand that procuring curriculum books and getting a girl into a school is extremely hard in our part of the world.

But when our learning suffered, it was out of pure spite, not love and inspiration, that I chose to start this organization. It was because I thought we were the most left-out community within Afghanistan. 

We were looked down upon and made fun of in all ways possible. We were mocked because of the way we spoke and carried ourselves. Somehow, the whole world believes that anyone from rural Afghanistan is a public Taliban supporter. The rural region where most of my family comes from has been held hostage by the Taliban for the past 20 years. Our district, Kandahar, is right across Chaman; even though it’s the same tribe, Chaman has schools for the most part. It bothered me so much that they had a school and we didn’t, so I had to do something about it. 

I wanted to open our own school because I didn’t want to wait for Save the Children to consider it safe to work with us. I didn’t want to wait for UNICEF to think we were exceptional. I didn’t want to wait for the World Bank to initiate or pressure the government. And I didn’t want to wait for the government to think we were important enough to do that. 

We are the rightful owners of this land and we should be doing our own thing. If someone stops us, they will have to deal with my bratty personality. So I just went ahead with it. It was that sense of responsibility but also a sense of ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’

I want to make sure that war doesn’t stop learning. It’s hard to stop men-led war, but it’s important to intervene and ensure safe learning spaces for girls and women.

What’s next for you?

Personally, I’m doing my master’s degree in education policy and analysis; I hope to graduate from Harvard next year. At LEARN, I’m experimenting with more learning methods and models. 

Currently, I’m working on satellite educational classes and aim to expand them to all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and someday to all the conflict zones and post-conflict zones in the world. 

I want to make sure that war doesn’t stop learning. It’s hard to stop men-led war, but it’s important to intervene and ensure safe learning spaces for girls and women. 

The practical goal would be to aim for building 34 schools by the end of 2025 within Afghanistan that can educate at least 3,400 girls from grade 7 to 12. Eventually, we hope to do the same thing in Yemen, Syria, Gaza, Iraq and all such places that require the same thing. 

I really want to give back to the refugee communities where I grew up. But once you go through this experience, you don’t want to limit it to yourself. You want to expand it to other people.

Saniya Ahmad is a writer and book blogger based in Islamabad, Pakistan.