On Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban marched into Kabul and everything changed for women and girls in the country.

First came the bans on women and girls’ education. Then they were banned from working outside the home, prohibited from accessing public baths, parks, and gyms, and moving freely around the country.

Extreme modesty rules were imposed. Beauty salons were shuttered. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was dismantled. A male chaperone to escort women whenever they left their homes became mandatory. A decree banned Afghan women from working for NGOs. The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was resurrected.

Two years after their takeover of Afghanistan, through more than 50 edicts, orders, and restrictions, the Taliban have set about systematically erasing women and girls from public life, denying them their most basic human rights in what amounts to what some experts are calling “gender apartheid.” This extreme level of gender-based discrimination against women and girls, perpetrated with total impunity, is unparalleled globally.

Pashtana Durrani is an Afghan feminist, activist, educator, and 2023 Global Citizen Prize winner. At the age of 21, she became the head of her family following her father’s passing. By then she had already founded LEARN Afghanistan, the country’s first-ever digital school network. As a human rights defender, she was forced into exile by the Taliban takeover in 2021, in order to continue her work in safety from abroad. She is currently a visiting fellow at Wellesley Centers for Women while continuing to provide education for hundreds of girls in Afghanistan despite the current ban on them attending school.

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I cried for two days straight when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. 

There are two times I’ve been through hell. The first was when my father passed away. The second was on Aug. 15, 2021.

I remember calling my friend in Kabul to ask when the reinforcements were arriving. He said: “No, that’s it. Everyone is getting out.”

I have never felt so hopeless, so heartbroken, and so done with life.

Ever since I was a young girl, I wanted to go back to Afghanistan. I grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan while my father worked in Afghanistan. In 2017, I finally went home. It wasn’t perfect. There were drone attacks and men from my tribe joined the army and the police. 

But in the same Afghanistan, women could still work and children could still go to school. I lived in Kandahar, a city in the south of the country. I studied political science. I went to cafés and had Aush, an Afghan soup, with my friends. We went for long drives. There was a sense of freedom and existence. I founded a nonprofit, LEARN, to expand educational opportunities in the country. I went to an office every day. Yes, there were restrictions, but at the end of the day, I could go to that office. My students could go to their schools and my teachers could teach legally.

So when the Taliban regained power, I cried continuously for two days. At the same time, I had to get people out. I was on the phone constantly. I had sent staff members to Kabul airport. When the attack happened, I thought I had sent them to die. Half an hour later, I got news they were alive. I have never been more grateful for anyone’s lives than their lives. 

It’s been two years since Afghanistan fell and it still hurts. I want to run away from this month. I still haven’t recovered from the trauma of letting go of Afghanistan. It hurts me in a way that I cannot put my hand on. The Afghanistan that I dreamed of belonging to, I don't know it anymore. 

I live in exile in the US now. I just started my Master’s degree at Harvard. I had my first class yesterday. The whole time I was thinking: “I need to change from part-time to full-time because I'm going to go back to Afghanistan. I can't wait here in the US for two years. Maybe things will change and then I can go back there next year.”

That longing to return has never gone away. 

Over the past two years, a lot has happened. 

When the Taliban banned women from working in NGOs, it made it practically impossible for women to exist in any sphere. For two weeks, we had to shut down everything. All learning was stopped. I thought it was the end. 

Then, my deputy director called me and said they were restarting the classes and even more girls had enrolled. Two weeks earlier, we had to close our doors on 220 students. Two weeks later, we had more than 280 in three schools. 

In July this year, I returned to Afghanistan after 18 months of Taliban rule. I went to Helmand, the sister province to Kandahar, and I entered one of our schools. All of the students and all of the teachers knew me even though we had never met. No introductions were needed and there were no pleasantries. We all knew the importance of the work we were doing. 

One moment I’ll always cherish is when a girl raised her hand and said: “I’m in Grade 7 now but I’m going to need support until Grade 12. Are you going to stay here until Grade 12?”

There are times I worry: “What will happen after this date? How are we going to get the funding?” 

But this girl was saying to me: “I’m going to show up. Are you going to show up for me?”

There have been heartbreaking moments over the past two years, too. 

The worst thing I have seen was when, in March, the girls went to school and were turned away. 

How horrible is the world that there can be young girls taking to the streets to beg to go to school?

When they closed down all of the schools and learning centers, a family friend’s daughter, Afsana*, cried for days and she hasn’t spoken since. It’s been more than four months. This kid just wants to meet her friends and laugh and learn. 

The way our schools have been able to avoid Taliban detection for so long is because we don’t go to the communities with the intention of setting up schools. They reach out to us and ask for help.

One of the first things we do is ask the elders if they are willing and supportive of their daughters to attend or teach in this space. The second question we ask is: “Are you willing to protect them?”

Because they’re their daughters. We might be providing education but we don’t have as much to lose. They give us the spaces and they introduce the women as teachers and they drop their daughters at the schools. We provide laptops, salaries for the teachers, electricity, software, and anything they might need. But they protect their daughters. They protect the teachers. They protect the spaces. 

I'm not going to claim that we have been at the forefront of fighting with the Taliban by openly opening schools. I have to be smart about it. The best resistance is for them to see a woman or a girl reading right under their noses. That’s only possible if we do our work silently. 

What keeps me going is that we have already been through this. This is not the first time we’ve been here. The one thing people should know about Afghans is that we are a country of rebels. And we will keep rebelling against the Taliban and anyone who enforces their outdated mentality again, and again, and again, until they lose power — which they will. 

It’s been two years since the Taliban took Afghanistan, waging a war on Afghan women, but we cannot afford to become complacent. Call your political representatives and ask them: what have you done about the current education ban for women and girls in Afghanistan? Speak out against the ban and keep sharing and supporting the work of activists who are working in this harsh reality.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Donate to LEARN and find out more about Pashtana’s work.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

Afghanistan Is a Country of Rebels. We Will Never Stop Fighting.

By Pashtana Durrani