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The highest level of education an Afghan girl can now get is 6th grade

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Yesterday, the Afghan government banned women from working in local and international non-governmental organizations. Because of this, three major international aid groups, including Save the Children, have suspended their operations. This comes days after the Taliban banned women in Afghanistan from attending universities, following an even earlier ban on girls attending secondary school. Now the highest level of education an Afghan girl can attain is the sixth grade, but there are concerns that even that could change. Pashtana Durrani is the executive director of LEARN. It's a nonprofit based in Afghanistan that helps girls access education. She joined us earlier this week from Turkey to talk about the ban and what's changed since the U.S. ended its occupation of Afghanistan and the Taliban took control of Kabul.

PASHTANA DURRANI: Our economy is crippling. Women cannot go to parks, schools, teach, work, work in banks, work menial jobs or even, like, you know, teach in schools. The only thing that women can do right now is, A, go to the doctor, which is allowed, and the second thing is young girls can go to school. But the women are not allowed to teach. So again, it's just going to the school and there is no teacher available.

LIMBONG: You left Afghanistan. You're now working at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. But all of your family and friends are still back home in Afghanistan. How is this affecting them, and what are they saying?

DURRANI: It has been an emotional roller coaster journey, in all honesty. Three weeks ago, we had a student that was kidnapped. We teach them in our underground schools. And then I think a month ago, a woman was murdered because she choose to marry some other guy who was from a different district, so - and both of these happened because of the Taliban. One was tortured to die, and the other one was kidnapped for three days because she posted something on Facebook. So it has been an emotional journey, honestly, and everyone is scared. Nobody wants to talk about it.

LIMBONG: Yeah. And your nonprofit, LEARN, helps girls access education despite all of this - despite all this danger. You guys are running underground schools and such. How's it going?

DURRANI: It's been challenging.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

DURRANI: Today, we got this news where they would be stopping girls from going to all these, you know, extracurricular activities or afterschool programs that are being used right now to teach girls secondary school subjects. So this - you know, this public space for women is shrinking. And at the same time, organizations like us are trying to make sure that we do whatever we can and provide the best services out there. But it's getting harder by the day.

LIMBONG: Can you, to the best of your ability, like, break down how these schools work? Like, how are you adapting to all these new bans and different dangers?

DURRANI: So for starters, let's say a year ago, girls were allowed to travel. So we would try to give them scholarships or, like, you know, find them sponsors. But then once that was banned and women were not allowed to go to other provinces, then within the same provinces, we partnered up with community leaders and opened up schools in people's houses. Since then, we have given them internet connection, gotten them laptops, made sure that the teachers within Afghanistan connect with each other and teach the girls at home. Even we go to the lengths where we are trying to pay for chaperones who would, you know, drop and pick the girls at specific times. And not all the girls are allowed to be in the same class at all times because of security. So those are all things that one has to think about, providing an education in Afghanistan, which is such a normal thing in all the world, and here we are running a program as in we are doing something very illegal.

LIMBONG: As the bans have escalated, how has attendance in these underground schools been?

DURRANI: I remember our Kabul school, five, six months ago, one of these people who were trying to get us help and they were donors in the U.S., and a bomb blast happened in Afghanistan, in Kabul, and that affected a lot of our students. So they would come from Barchi (ph) to this school that we had in Kabul. And I kept on getting asked by the donor, why isn't students showing up? And I kept on telling them that a lot of them lost their brothers in the bomb blast and they can no more come because they cannot travel alone and they are not allowed to be alone. And the Taliban will suspect that they are going to somewhere where they're going to learn. So it's - sometimes it's very hard for us to explain why our student number will suddenly drop or why would the student not show up. Sometimes it takes one girl and her kidnapping or taking her away for just three days and people will just drop out of school because they don't want that dishonor for their own daughters, you know?

LIMBONG: Yeah. It, like, instills fear everywhere else.

DURRANI: Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely, definitely. This girl that was kidnapped in Kandahar, her whole family, like, more than 20 girls, just dropped out. They were like, yeah, we don't want this. So imagine that.

LIMBONG: Yeah. You had mentioned before that you think the burden should rest on the shoulders of international leaders to help Afghan girls and women right now. What do you think that they should be doing?

DURRANI: I think the first thing the world leaders need to be doing is at least ask the educators what the solutions are, you know? For the past one year, I have seen U.S. appoint multiple people for Afghans, but tell me one concrete position that they hold or they have done or a framework where they said, OK, these many girls are going to get educated from an alternative way to learning. This is what the framework we are trying to develop right now, and these many girls will get scholarship. And this is how many - how much we are investing in alternative ways to learning like video learning, internet learning, zero meter (ph) learning on data, you know? None of those things you'll see from them.

LIMBONG: You graduated from university in May, right?

DURRANI: Yeah.

LIMBONG: If women and girls are being denied an education right now, what do you think the broader future for Afghanistan looks like?

DURRANI: Let's say, in the next five years, girls are not graduating from high school. Girls are not graduating from midwifery schools or medicine, you know? The population continues to grow, but there is no midwife, there is no doctor, there is no teacher, which means illiteracy becomes more, poverty becomes more, child labor becomes more. Women will be dying because of postmortem hemorrhage and anything that's prenatal, postnatal health care problem that could not be dealt with someone within the village. So your population continues to grow, your economy continues to be in crisis, but the demand is not being met because Taliban think that women are not supposed to work, or they're not supposed to get educated.

LIMBONG: How are you doing watching all of this?

DURRANI: I don't know, honestly. There were times where I would have cried. There are times where I would have screamed at world leaders. But right now I'm just hopeless. Honestly, I'm really hopeless. I have done everything in my power to make sure that I do what I can, but nobody is listening to us. Nobody is literally listening to Afghans right now.

LIMBONG: That was Pashtana Durrani. She's the executive director of the education nonprofit LEARN. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

DURRANI: Thank you for having me. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.
Adam Raney