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This Afghan Activist Keeps Telling the Taliban to Respect the Rights of Women and Girls

Photo of Kandahar Afghanistan
Kandahar, above, was the second-largest city taken by the Taliban recently, before the group seized Kabul on Aug. 15. An interview this week with an outspoken education activist in Kandahar said the United Nations should be the main international voice pressuring the Taliban to accept the rights of women and girls, because the Taliban want “legitimacy from the UN.” FIONA SHUKRI

The Taliban seized Afghanistan’s second-largest city of Kandahar just last week, marking the beginning of the quick takeover of the country. Kandahar, a city of 60,000 that borders Pakistan, is a historic center of Pashtun culture and power and was once Afghanistan’s capital. Three days later, on Sunday, the nation’s capital of Kabul was captured by the Taliban, who now control the country for the first time since 2001. Much remains to be seen how the new leaders will take charge of a country that has been racked for so long by war. One major fear across the world is how women will be treated.

PassBlue spoke with Pashtana Durrani, a human-rights activist from Kandahar this week. She is the founder and executive director of Learn:Afghan, a nonprofit organization that educates Afghan children, focusing on girls. Its donors include Unicef, the Malala Fund and Education Cannot Wait. Durrani, who continues to be active on Twitter and Instagram, remains outspoken about the need to secure rights for Afghan women and girls even as the Taliban establish control and historically have denied the rights of women and girls to conduct their lives freely.

I worked in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2018 as a government contractor and advocacy adviser and spoke over Skype with Durrani this week from New York City. — FIONA SHUKRI

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Were Kandaharis shocked by the Taliban’s rapid takeover? 

Durrani: The minute Kandahar fell, I knew Afghanistan was going to fall, and I knew there was nothing we could do about it but raise our voices. It’s been three days. I’m not going to say I’m heartbroken; no, we fight back.

What have you been doing since the Taliban took control of Kandahar?

Durrani: I wake up, and I get in touch with my staff.  I have around seven people working for me. I see if they’re O.K., still alive. Once they give me an ‘O.K.,’ I get in touch with the principals [of Learn:Afghan-affiliated schools] and others we work with. Then I get online and see what’s going on.

Do you expect the Taliban to exert the same control over women that they did when they ran the country decades ago?

Durrani: If you know Kandahari women, you know we are never afraid to speak our minds. We talk back at home; now is the time to talk back in public. Women have to take up space. I’m online, I’m on Twitter, Facebook and on TV, asking people in their own countries, France, the US, everywhere, to pressure their own governments to make the Taliban publicly accept women’s and girls’ rights. We need to pressure the international community and governments of the world. If the Taliban needs legitimacy to be accepted internationally, then they need to accept women’s and girls’ rights.

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You’ve said you will continue to fight for the rights of Afghan women and girls. What does that entail now?

Durrani: I am getting touch with all the people I know who support the Taliban government and telling them, if you are supporting the Taliban, and you don’t want me to give political statements, then you should be telling the Taliban to be making the statements.

An American TV network ended its Afghanistan news coverage last night with a photo of girls going school in Kabul, as usual, on a hopeful note. Is that an important image? Are girls still going to school?

Durrani: There are no happy notes in Afghanistan now. Students, educators, health care, NGO community development workers — all need to be assured of safety before they return [to regular daily life]. Families need to be sure of this before they send their people out to school or work. The Taliban need to give a statement that girls can go to school. They should say that families shouldn’t have fear — humanitarian workers, NGO workers — whatever the position and job. The reality is these people need to work.

What can the international community do to support Afghan women at this moment?

Durrani: The international community should pressure the Taliban to accept women’s and girls’ rights. The Taliban should have a woman leader to deal with women’s concerns. I don’t care if she’s old, new, young, whatever; there should be someone in place. There is not even a single person representing the Taliban who can talk with all the women of Afghanistan. They need to be pressured for things like this.

What can the United Nations specifically do to support Afghan women and girls right now? 

Durrani: The UN can do a lot of things. They can put pressure on the Taliban to accept women’s and girls’ rights. The UN should be the one who is doing this, really, because I think the Taliban will do anything and everything to get legitimacy from the UN. This the time to ‘shove it down their throat.’ Now is the time.

Do you think you will be able to continue your work in the foreseeable future? 

Durrani: I will continue working no matter what. Even if it’s in underground schools. I am going to work. They are not going stop this. I had the right twenty years ago, and I’m not going to give it up just because the Taliban are in power.

Fiona Shukri is an American living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2018, where she worked as an adviser to the Afghan government. Previously, she was a Middle East senior program manager for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C.; and a communications strategist at Unesco in Paris and at UNA-USA in New York City. http://www.fiona-shukri.com

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