Pashtana Durrani knows that she is on the Taliban’s radar. The 23-year-old teacher has been fiercely advocating for girls’ education since the group started making advances in Afghanistan after the U.S. announced it would withdraw troops from the country by Aug. 31. But despite being told that she is not safe, Durrani is staying put.
“I didn’t leave because I just felt like it’s my responsibility to do right by my people,” she says. “This is not just about me. This is about the girls of Afghanistan.”
On Aug. 15, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital 20 years after being ousted from power, triggering a chaotic rush to the Kabul airport as foreign citizens and many Afghans tried to flee the country. Even though the Taliban has promised to respect the rights of women and religious minorities this time, many remain skeptical given its brutal history of oppression. According to Human Rights Watch, schools have been shut down and women have been forced to leave their jobs by Taliban commanders in many provinces.
Durrani has been in hiding since her hometown Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, fell to the Taliban on Aug. 13. However, she insisted on showing her face when she spoke to TIME about life under the Taliban. She also explained why she is risking her safety to speak up, and how the international community can rally to keep the Taliban accountable.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is the situation on the ground now and what are you hearing from people?
Things are calmer. But there are challenges. Banks are closed, for example. And that makes it difficult to respond to the needs of the community.
It also becomes suffocating every time you have to worry about your own security. The women that I am in touch with are either too scared to go out at the moment, or are hiding like me. The people I talked to, the girls that I talked to, they say, “Our dreams, our goals, they’re all gone, everything is gone.”
Why are you advocating for schools to open?
I grew up in a family that loved teaching. The importance of learning and teaching was subconsciously nurtured in me. That is why I am resisting so much.
There are some things that you give up on and there are things that you just don’t. Girls’ education right now is that red line. Women’s working rights are the red lines that are important. We have to make sure that this time, no child is left out, so that in the future, they don’t have to make a choice of taking up arms just because they didn’t have a job opportunity.
A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
Do you trust the Taliban when they say they will be more respectful of the rights of women?
I will trust them when they open up schools. I will trust them when they appoint a woman minister who would address women’s issues. I will trust them when they let women go back to work. They are saying this one thing to the media, but then there are no schools open, and the teachers are still at home. Students are still at home. So I don’t know how to trust them right now.
What is your biggest worry at the moment?
The international media is only looking at Kabul. The cameras are in Kabul. And [the Taliban] are holding back. What will happen if the world looks away? What will happen when there is another hot topic? Will they forget Afghan girls? That is my concern.
Could the international community have done more to protect Afghans from the Taliban?
The fact that U.S. and all these Western friends stood by and legitimized the Doha deal, they didn’t stop the civilian casualties, they didn’t stop the Taliban offensives, they didn’t pressurize them into not abusing the human rights defenders and humans and civilians of Afghanistan. That’s what makes me sad.
But even now, there is time for them. They could pressurize them because the Taliban are looking for legitimacy. And they could grant that by exercising their power by asking them to accept women’s rights. Open up schools. Every time [the Taliban] go back on that, there should be a mechanism in place so that they don’t do it.
What message do you have for world leaders?
Afghan girls are still in Afghanistan. Not all of them are on those planes. Maybe for once, stop being silent about it. Make sure that you use your power to make sure that Afghan women get the services that they need, like education, health care and working rights. And that they are not just left out because there was a political deal where we were not even asked, and which we were not even a part of. They shouldn’t be suffering because you didn’t lift a finger.
What keeps you going?
This was certainly not something that I thought would happen. But as an Afghan, every new day brings another issue. It breaks you for sure but you have to keep going. What helps me is remembering that it is all about people’s lives, their education and civil rights. If the people live, the country lives.
BY ABHISHYANT KIDANGOOR – TIME