This August will mark the second anniversary of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s swift move to absolute power, the lives of women and the future for girls looks bleaker than ever.
As soon as they took hold of the country, the de facto authorities banned girls beyond puberty to attend school, and then in December 2022 they moved to restrict girls from university access as well.
Top that with confirmation from the United Nations this past March announcing that Afghanistan has become the most regressive country in the world.
As dismal as things are in her home country, 27-year-old Pashtana Dorani refuses to sit idly by and do nothing—even though she’s living in exile in the United States.
Dorani is the founder of LEARN, a non-profit organization committed to helping children—especially girls—get access to an education in Afghanistan. The group focuses on schooling for underprivileged communities and children from rural areas. What is alarming is that these schools are functioning under the radar and they could be found out by the Taliban at any time.
LEARN was founded in 2018—before the US withdrawal—when Dorani was only 19 years old. Girls were going to school then, so why did she feel the need to create the education platform at that point?
“The world thinks that in the 20 years the US was there, that they got everything up and running,” she tells me from her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she has been living since November 2021.
“On paper, yes, the country had schools for all the districts, but in Ravati where I come from, there were no schools. Kandahar is the second largest province yet there was no high school. In the whole of the province we have 18 districts—17 if you don’t count the main city,” she says. The city had 18 public schools and that’s it. We don’t have Grade 12-level education—none of the districts have that. That’s the second largest province for you.”
Dorani says that one of the reasons she started LEARN was because of the perpetual tribal wars happening in the regions, such as the one she comes from.
“Every internally-displaced person in Morad—my region—never had any access to school because the boys had to enlist in a boarding school and girls were not allowed,” she says. “It was simply impossible.”
Dorani decided to challenge that. She could have filed corruption charges. “At some point, I believe you have to do something rather than just complaining about it,” she asserts. “I did talk about it in the media, I did raise my voice. I have done interviews. There were ghost schools and ghost teachers and ghost students who were attending schools—but the names didn’t exist. I wanted to do something about this. I wanted to provide a proper solution.”
She says that LEARN wasn’t like any of the schools that were typical in Afghanistan. “If they had helped, they would have done more in the past two decades,” she says. Dorani wanted tools such as offline apps and radio channel education. “I also wanted to make sure we produce content that is in our native languages. It had to be both accessible and comprehensive.”
As an outspoken critic of the Taliban, Dorani was threatened and forced into hiding in 2020. Then, during the chaotic days of the US withdrawal, things got worse. “We are a government family,” she explains. “My father was part of the coalition—the forces that fought against the Taliban. My being an activist for education also made me a target.”
On the run, Dorani moved to eight different places. “I had to be smuggled into two [of the] places,” she remembers. “I also had to change my identity a couple of times and use someone else’s papers to cross provincial and international borders.”
But in a strange way, Dorani says she felt safe because the people she was working with to get out of the country believed in her.
“I had one staff member who had a broken leg and he still took me from Kandahar to Kabul because my brother was already out of the country and I didn’t have a male chaperone to take me. He did that in the middle of the night on a bus,” she recalls. “So when people say I’m brave, that’s not true. It was a network of people—both men and women—who believe in my work and are helping me to still stand so that Afghanistan still has functioning schools [for girls].”
After the US pullout, Dorani knew that her work with LEARN was more important than ever. The organization regrouped and discussed many options on how to operate safely and sustainably. COVID that taught the organization to use online resources like Google Meet and Google Docs so that they didn’t have to be in office all the time. “We cannot afford a rented space, so we had to be innovative,” she says.
The first thing they had to learn was to be efficient. To make sure that the models were cost-effective, affordable, and accessible in Afghanistan — especially in rural areas.
“We started having Google Meet classes and used Facebook as a teaching tool and showed people how to use it.”
The organization is almost 100% remote, except for the instructors who teach in-person.
“We also have WhatsApp groups for all the different tasks we have and we use DISCO to follow up. The good thing is that all of our teachers are under age 25 so it’s much easier for us to use new tools and to experiment with all of it.”
Dorani runs three in-person schools in Afghanistan and the rest are virtual. “It’s a hybrid situation,” she explains. “Sometimes the teachers are in Helmand which is in the west. Sometimes they are in Mazar. It also depends on the skills.” Dorani says that all of the teachers cannot be in the same place because of obvious security reasons. “We also can’t bring new people in, so we have to be very careful. We just stick to the people we know or the people that we can train.”
Most of the teachers are online and they teach through Google Meet, but the students are more in-person. “Let’s say we have an apartment in Helmand that someone donated to us,” Dorani explains. “We use that location to teach very basic level education because that city has been in war for more than two decades [so there is a lot of trauma] and none of the rebuilding was done the way it should have been.”
In Kandahar, Dorani has 100 girls who learn through the hybrid model. “Around 30, I believe, go to someone’s home to learn with a teacher in-person. The other 70 students study online but they also have facilities to teach them at someone’s house.” Dorani has also had a basement donated to her as a study location.
The education level of the schools goes from grades 7 to 12. “It’s a strictly secondary school-level entity,” she says. “We do freelance teaching as well to help to earn money, but we just don’t have the capacity for anything that is university-level. We focus more on grades 9 to 12 because this is the level of education that was banned to begin with, although university education is banned now, too.”
Dorani’s staff consists of 30 people. “We have six people around the world—they are more the face of the organization and they work with us remotely,” she says. “All the other staff are back home.”
The locations of the schools have been changed a number of times for security reasons. “We started at one organizational space and had to move to another space. For Bamyan we had to change twice, and for Helmand we are still on our first,” she says.
They had to shut down the Kandahar school and had to change the Kabul school once.
“We have four functioning schools but it’s become harder and harder and the student numbers are dwindling because there are still bomb blasts happening in the country,” she says. “And in some places the Taliban surveillance is so high that people can’t risk sending their daughters to school. So it’s more of a different situation now.”
Dorani says she is in a perpetual state of worry that the Taliban is going to find out about the schools. “I have been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and both my therapist and gynecologist keep telling me to stop stressing and that I am safe now,” she says. “But I’m always like: ‘Am I? And what about my people—are they safe?’ I am always in fight-or-flight mode. I cannot relax. I can’t remember the last time I slept well. I’m always in my head thinking what if someone goes missing? What if someone’s parents go missing?”
Her fears are a reality for some. Dorani mentions a Facebook post she saw about a group of girls from another organization who went missing.
What helps is that she gets regular updates on the safety of her students and staff. “I have a six-hour policy,” she explains. “They have to check in every six hours on WhatsApp. When they do, I feel like I can breathe again for a minute.”
Ahead of the anniversary of the Taliban takeover, both high schools and universities in the warmer regions of the country are set to start back up this August—but only for boys. “The Taliban is not known for graduating thousands of girls from schools,” she says. “Instead, they’re known for burning down schools. They’re known for harassing women and teachers, and for targeting people who work with NGOs on education. They cannot change in one day, in one year, or two years, or from American pressure.”
She doesn’t see any meaningful change happening under the Taliban. “There needs to be a reconciliation among all the parties in Afghanistan,” she says. “The majority of the people—including the warlords—everyone needs to be at the same table when it comes to education. But I don’t see the Taliban accepting it.”
Dorani says she is a pragmatic person but she can’t help but have hope for her home country. “I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to Afghanistan,” she sighs. “It’s such a beautiful country with so much potential.” She holds on to the belief that someday, the schools will open to all children.
“Everyone has a right to education,” she asserts. “Perhaps one day we won’t have to beg the world to give us access to our own learning paths. Perhaps one day we will be self-sufficient.”