The founder of Learn Afghanistan is supporting secret schools as girls across the country resist the Taliban’s ruling on female education
Almost a year after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Pashtana Dorani is struggling to process the change. “I still can’t believe this is happening to us, that this is reality,” the women’s rights activist says. Born after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, she grew up with the opportunities and expectations that were becoming normal for some Afghan women. “We had the right to education, the right to work, all those things were there for women, now they’re not.”
The last 20 years saw significant improvements for women in Afghanistan but there were still huge challenges surrounding female access to education. An estimated 3.5 million children were out of school in 2017 and 85 percent of them were girls, according to an Afghan government report. “People say there were a lot of gains but there were many different issues,” Dorani says, pointing to a lack of learning infrastructure, resources, and qualified teachers as well as social and cultural barriers that prevented a lot of girls from going to school.
So, in 2018 she set up Learn Afghanistan, a nonprofit working to expand educational opportunities in the country by running schools, training teachers, and providing resources for thousands of Afghan children. When the pandemic hit, Learn adapted its approach, creating digital learning tools and an app that allows students to access educational games, books, and other materials online. “We were running online sessions through Facebook because that was the only accessible platform,” Dorani says.
These materials have proved useful in their response to the Taliban takeover and their ban on secondary education for girls. “Now we run online classes and the girls go to a secret location to learn through laptops,” she says. Learn works closely with local communities to select a suitable site for the underground classes and ensures they are committed to keeping the girls safe. “They have to give me a 100 percent guarantee then I hire teachers and give them resources,” she says. “I won’t put my staff and students at risk.”
The curriculum covers digital literacy with sessions in graphic design and data analysis, as well as core subjects like maths, science, and languages. Partnerships with international NGOs have helped Learn reach more provinces across Afghanistan, but their resources are limited. “There are communities that really want our schools but I don’t have any money for them,” she says. Instead, she hopes to support students that will use their education to help others, providing a generation of change-makers with the knowledge and skills to be leaders in their communities. “I do believe in our younger generation, I see amazing women doing amazing things,” Dorani says.
A grant from Ideas Beyond Borders is covering teacher salaries so that Learn can hire qualified staff and reach more students. “The Taliban remains obsessed with preventing girls from accessing education while doing little to address the devastating economic decline that’s plunging millions into extreme poverty,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “Dorani and her team are leading the fight to make sure girls receive an education and have the skills and knowledge needed to help rebuild their country when these dark days have passed.”
The Taliban is continuing to tighten restrictions on women, with a recent edict requiring women to cover their faces, including female reporters on TV, and the ban on secondary education for women last March. During a visit to the country in May, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett expressed “serious concern about the deterioration of human rights across the country and the erasure of women from public life.”
“I urge the authorities to acknowledge human rights challenges that they are facing and to close the gap between their words and the deeds,” he said.
Pashtana Dorani: ‘There’s Hope for Afghan Women’
Divisions within the Taliban leadership have prompted hope that the group may reverse its decision on female education, but Dorani says there is no point waiting while they use women as a bargaining chip. “They are using women’s rights as a tool in political negotiations – they want international recognition before they re-open schools.” But having watched the Taliban renege on promises, she’s keen to act now. “We can’t wait for someone else to come and rescue us, we have to fill the gap ourselves,” she says.
In the face of Taliban brutality, the stakes are high. Women have been beaten and even murdered for failing to observe their rules but Dorani believes there is still a future for women in the country. “For the women of Afghanistan, there’s always hope. I see all these amazing powerhouse women who are trying to make a difference in their own sector…. and women are resisting, every girl showing up for school is a form of resistance.”