Afghan women struggle for their rights – Interview with Afghan women’s rights defender Pashtana Durrani

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Begüm Başdaş at Medyascope spoke with Afghan human rights defender Pashtana Durrani. Durrani is the founder and Executive Director of “Learn” which is a non-profit organization in Afghanistan that supports women and youth through innovation and education.

Learn as an NGO is currently focused on the humanitarian and educational crises in Afghanistan. Durrani said, “We help the families and also the refugees on the other side of the border to get them whatever that is needed, such as groceries, food and clean water.” For Durrani, the goal of Learn is to support the education of girls, but they lack resources when it comes to teachers, books, stationaries. Learn is also trying to continue its menstrual hygiene management campaign that helps girls combat hygiene issues and continue school.

Taliban announced that women in Afghanistan will only be allowed to study at university in gender-segregated classrooms and Islamic dress will be compulsory. Female students will also only be allowed to be taught by women and the subjects being taught at universities would be reviewed. As a response to Taliban’s statement, Durrani said “I will wear five layers, if I can get the good education that I want. I will go to any gender segregated class, as long as there is a teacher willing to teach me the updated curriculum. You have to look at it objectively, rather than saying oh it is my right to wear whatever I want. Right now, we are not in that position. We want to learn. That is the main goal, and we need to focus on that.”

Durrani emphasized that the issue of issue of “Islamic dress code” is up for discussion and not a priority. She said “The girls going to school are already covered and they wear some sort of layers. Afghanistan is not a European country to have that kind of dress code. It is also a very cold country, so people try to cover as much as possible. I find it very funny when they use “Islamic dress code” but they do not know how to specify it.  They try to make one uniform and impose it to everyone, which is not right. Under the Sharia you are supposed to cover yourself, but you are not supposed to be imposed into it.”

Durrani reminded that majority of everyday life and education spaces for women are already segregated and added, “When you go to the university it would have been segregated only if there were more women professors. Because this is how Afghanistan works and functions.” According to Durrani, women should not be deprived of learning skills they need because there are no women educators. She said, “Different classes does not matter, as long as we have the resources to combat the crises of how many girls should be taught, combat the lack of resources or female teachers. If Taliban have answers to these, then I am good.” However, she also added, “I doubt that Taliban understands this issue in a broader spectrum.”

For Durrani, the most important and alarming problem with Taliban’s statement on university education is on the curriculum. She said, “Now, Taliban wants to police the curriculum. We might lose a lot of historical and geographical stances. The curriculum is already policed and outdated, if they police it more, we may lose more history. For example, Taliban might not like women of Afghanistan in history, who were queens and warriors of Afghanistan, and they might not include them. If you remove them from the history of Afghanistan, the next generation will not learn about them. This is alarming. For Political Sciences and International Relations, if all these are policed you cannot have an active society.”

Pashtana Durani does not believe that Taliban would support women’s rights anytime soon but insists that Taliban is seeking international legitimacy, especially because they care to receive aid. She commented on the pro-Taliban protest by women in Afghanistan who claimed to support the hijab. She said, “nobody is fighting hijab. Everybody is fighting the fact that they are not letting women work and get educated.” She argued that “Any women coming out and taking her public space in Taliban’s regime is a good thing, even if they are pro them. You have to take up that space. As a feminist, I have to co-exist and accept women who have other rights. I do not want to have this privileged ‘white feminism’ in my head that only I am right. But those women should not be the sole representative of Afghanistan. Those women were given protocol and security, but the other women who came and asked for their rights were beaten, abused and tortured.” And, she asked “Why the difference?”

When asked about the situation outside of Kabul and in other provinces, Durrani said she has more information about Kandahar, where all women stopped working. She said, “Kandahar is a very conservative province and the only appropriate work for women is in schools, education or in women’s section of respectable NGOs.  For now, NGOs are only remotely functioning.  Teachers are not there because they either fled or they are hiding to wait and see how it is going to function. In the provinces, less students are going to maternal health care schools. Girls are not going to classes although health care is not something Taliban opposed in the past. The general feeling is fear and uncertainty.”

While thousands of Afghans were evacuated by the USA and other NATO allies before they left Afghanistan, thousands more are still in the country and in need of protection. Durrani commented that it is almost impossible for these people to leave the country as the check posts are covered by Taliban and there are no more visas issued to Afghans by the countries in the region. She said, countries like Tajikistan and India tried to help. For example, India tried giving e-visas to Afghans but since there are no flights, people are not able to leave. She said “all borders are closed to Afghans. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan might open their borders soon, but Iran and Pakistan are still hostile.” She added that although the border with Pakistan is porous, it is very risky for people and even worse if they want to leave from Pakistan. Durrani said, “Even if you get to Pakistan, you do not have an exit or a clear route to leave because you are tortured in different ways.”

Durrani had a very strong position against the European Union that continues its anti-migration policies and denies refugee to Afghans. She said, “If EU is not keen on receiving Afghans, they should have thought about it in the past 20 years. They could have made good mechanisms and should not have developed programs that only funded Kabul. They could have focused on rural areas. They could have made sure that for the money that was coming to Afghanistan, there were checks and balances in place. And not every other child had to go, pick up a side in the army and die and get buried or become a part of Taliban as a teenage soldier. Now they do not want migrants, maybe now it is the time they correct their mistakes for the past. Of course, there is no forgiveness. This is the time they ask the Taliban and pressure the Taliban that the aid is coming, but there are the strings attached. You won’t be murdering and lashing people, you won’t be controlling women and you will allow them in public space. All these things can happen. EU can do all that, but they won’t.”

She called on the EU to accept refugees, “So at least accept the refugees and respect the people who worked day and night, put their lives in danger for your advance. They translated for you, cooked, and cleaned for you. They made sure you are comfortable. The least you could do is to give them a safe home in your country.” She criticized the EU for remaining silent, “Every time they blame the Afghan government, they are as much as to be blamed. I was just an Afghan girl; I could not force anything into them. I stood up against everything corrupt, but no body supported it. So now, maybe accept the refugees and give them a safe home. But they are silent.”

Durrani finds it hard to get used to the current situation. She said, “You go to bank and supermarket by yourself, you are the breadwinner of the family, and then all of a sudden you are just limited to a room.” But she is dedicated to continuing her work to support Afghan people and she is exploring all ways to support women’s education. She invited everyone to amplify Afghan voices and support them in any way possible.

To get more information on Learn and support please visit: www.learnafghan.org

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