“Our rights have been exploited for 40 years” – activist Pashtana Dorani on Afghanistan, the Taliban and US intervention
Pashtana Dorani is an Afghan womens’ and human rights activist and founder of LEARN, a non-profit organisation that provides education to girls in Afghanistan who don’t have access to schools. She fled Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country in 2021, and is currently based in the US, where she is a visiting fellow at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Pashtana spoke to us candidly about the Taliban’s takeover and the problematic intervention of the US in her country.
NADJA: You were living in Afghanistan when the Taliban regained control of the government in 2021. What was this like?
Pashtana Dorani: One day you have a constitution, you have an identity, a flag and a national anthem. Most importantly, you have rights. Then the next day people who have bombed your schools and your family get into the government to form the regime they want and dictate your rights to you.
The imminent change of course, was not being able to go out, and not being able to socialise. We lost all our political and institutional representatives, not that they were all clean as there was a lot of corruption, but there was a structure that was very important and in countries like ours, we need these institutions. All of that was lost in a matter of a few hours.
NADJA: How did you get out of Afghanistan?
P.D: I cannot give a lot of details because a lot of the people involved are still there. But I was smuggled from one province to another, then I was smuggled into another country and back again, and then sent through a legal route. Even after that, I was still interrogated by the intelligence services in that country and taken away, but then the American services came through and put me on a plane to the US.
NADJA: How did you feel about the US pulling its troops out of Afghanistan?
P.D: Something that offends me is when journalists from the West talk about the troops leaving and that being the end of our rights. We used to have elections with women representatives. The US actually funded the Mujahedeen in the 1980s and pushed the Taliban [into power] in the 1990s. That’s how we ended up here in the first place. The US didn’t help me gain my rights – they actually exploited them for more than 40 years. When the troops left, I definitely thought it was good because they should never have invaded us in the first place.
Afghanistan didn’t have anything to do with 9/11. [During the US war in Afghanistan] we were tortured, we were bombed and they made a monster out of the Taliban which they could have controlled in 2003-2004, but they didn’t because of their egos and we still suffer because of it. So overall as an Afghan, yes, it was good that they left. I also feel that it’s very weird to have foreign troops protect me. There were other constructive ways that could have been used to make sure that we had rights, but they just used this [as an excuse] to invade us.
NADJA: Do you think there are similarities between the trajectories of Iran [since the 1979 revolution] and Afghanistan under the Taliban?
P.D: The way the current regime in Iran* looks at women is unnerving and it fills me with rage. I have worked with Amnesty International and I know of women who have been lashed for not wearing a headscarf, women who have been missing and have been imprisoned for years, just because they said something on social media or they wanted to go and watch football.
This offends me as a woman. But one thing that studies clearly show is that 70% of STEM students in Iran are women. That’s a big thing to learn from, that Iran is right now a very restrictive place for women but while 70% might not be at leadership level, it means the majority of people becoming engineers, doctors, midwives and mathematics professors will be women.
But I do see that Afghanistan, Iran and even Pakistan are all in the same boat. All of them are at war with their own women. They are scared of women and that’s why they don’t want women in leadership positions.
NADJA: If women are taken out of the workforce surely that country then suffers financially. So why has the Taliban taken all these rights away from Afghan women?
P.D: Let me ask you this, do we ever say that a man’s education is important for a country’s economy? We never question that. We never say that a man is supposed to be educated. A man is supposed to contribute to his economy. Men have been in a privileged position and that’s the reason most countries have a machinery where men run the economy. Why do we question girls’ education? Are we lesser citizens? Are we not part of the same country, with the same roots?
Now if we really have to justify it because we are on the fence about women being citizens and being able to access education, first of all, you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you make 50% of the population stay at home. Afghanistan is not a rich country so it doesn’t get to have that choice. If we were, we would be a stable nation. So men, women and teenagers, everyone has to work to make a living.
The regimes of Afghanistan and Iran are very scared of women, especially educated women. They are scared of our progressiveness, and the fact that we are more inclusive towards religious and ethnic minorities.
NADJA: What do you hope to achieve with LEARN?
P.D: We have schools in four different regions of Afghanistan. We teach around 400 girls skills like digital literacy and graphic design but also we are making sure that we teach them school subjects like biophysics and chemistry, which are not accessible right now. Although school is still accessible for grades one to six, after that it is not, so we work mainly with teenage girls from ages 13 to 18.
There might be peace one day and I will be able to return home. But if I am not here anymore, I think these girls will be the next leaders of Afghanistan. Unlike in western countries where everyone is educated or at least can read, education in our society is such a big privilege. If just one hundred girls in each province are given this privilege, I think they might change the world.
NADJA: How do you feel as an Afghan woman living in the US?
P.D: Sometimes when I am at Boston airport, I think about how much money goes into building an airport of this size, and then I see other cities like New York that have two airports. It’s so hard for me to comprehend that such big machinery exists and the world is moving at that pace, while my family are still back home – there are people in my village who don’t have electricity. It’s definitely a struggle having that guilt, but also knowing real world people live here too, going about their day, and how do I fit in here.
NADJA: Would you like to return to Afghanistan one day?
P.D: Oh yes, most definitely. That’s always the hope.
*This interview with Pashtana was conducted before the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran and the ensuing protests.