“We Will Shine Again”: The Incredible Women Risking Their Lives To Resist The Taliban
The winter chill had already descended on Kandahar, a province in the south of Afghanistan, when Pashtana Durrani crossed into her home country in late December 2023. Durrani is a hunted woman; wanted by the Taliban for defying their many bans on women.
But on this day, covered head-to-toe in the traditional burqa – a requirement mandated by the Taliban – she is able to slip past the many checkpoints undetected.
Once inside, she gets to work right away; managing the administrative details of three schools in the Kandahar, Helmand and Bamyan provinces. They are operated by Learn, an NGO Durrani started in 2018, to promote higher education and STEM learning among women. Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, and its ban on Afghan girls over 12 attending schools and universities, what Durrani does is illegal and, in equal parts, dangerous.
Her secret schools, operated underground and in frequently changing locations, provide more than 300 girls the opportunity to continue their education, both online and in-person.
“We have classes from grade 7 to grade 12 [ages 12 to 19], in physics, chemistry and all other subjects that were approved by the previous [government’s] education ministry, as well as menstrual hygiene management training and mental health awareness check-in calls every week,” she tells Service95.
The Taliban’s increasing restrictions on women’s rights go beyond education to include bans on employment and political participation. Even movement is curtailed. Durrani’s secret school is among the many acts of resistance Afghan women – both inside and outside the country – are taking against the repressive regime. Some rebellions are on a smaller level, such as dyeing your hair blonde under your headscarf to defy the ban on hair salons, while many others risk their lives every day to help others.
“The women of Afghanistan are very brave,” said Maria, a civil rights activist, whose full name has been withheld to protect her identity. She is among the few women who, in direct disobedience of a Taliban ban, has continued her work with an NGO on women’s reproductive health. She also frequently travels to remote parts of the country, in disguise and under false pretences, to provide support to Afghan women in need.
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Maria had to abandon her Master’s degree when the ban on university education was imposed in December 2022, but she has refused to quit working. “Before the Taliban, I was studying and had a full-time job in the field of women’s rights and education. It was my dream to complete my degrees and work in the legal sector to help women whose rights have been violated,” she says. “That all changed within days. But I cannot give up.”
Negotiating with her employers, Maria kept her job, at first working remotely and later finding ways to get to work with the support of her family and colleagues. “Women are not allowed to travel without a mahram [a male guardian],” she explains. “Even getting to work requires travelling with a man who is related to you. It is harder to travel to remote areas for work.”
If caught, the consequences could be severe. Undeterred, Maria finds inspiration from the women around her. “I have always been optimistic about the future of Afghan women because Afghan women are very brave and never stopped fighting,” she says. “They are still fighting. They go to secret schools, they study at home and they find ways to work and support each other. They even continue to protest, despite the threats and torture.”
Some 6,000km away, activist in exile Tamana Paryani is leading one such protest in Cologne, Germany. In January 2022, while still living in Kabul, Paryani was imprisoned by the Taliban and endured torture and intimidation for organising protests against their regressive policies. She was released following international pressure on the Taliban but was forced to flee the country due to increased threats to her life. She remains determined to continue to draw attention to the atrocities faced by women in Afghanistan.
In September 2023, she went on a 12-day hunger strike, demanding international recognition of the “gender apartheid” in Afghanistan – a term used to describe the systemic oppression of groups based on their sex. But even before the Taliban resurged, Paryani says: “The democracy in Afghanistan was symbolic and women did not have equal rights.”
A law graduate and journalist by profession, Paryani was also a sportswoman and weightlifting champion – both considered taboo for women in Kabul. “Some of the work I did was symbolic, since many of the jobs were only meant for men,” she says. “Women were asked to back down in a system that paid a lip service to democracy and freedoms. It was like swimming against the tide, but it was also what kept driving us – the fight for emancipation and equal rights.”
However, when the Taliban took over, the little space that women had made for themselves quickly shrank. As many Afghans were forced to flee, Paryani – who had the opportunity to leave – decided to stay and protest. “The decision [to stay and resist] was made even before the Taliban arrived,” she says. “It was a path that I had charted for myself, seeking equality and rule of law. It was a given that I should be on the streets, fighting to protect it.”
Her consequent detention and torture five months later coerced her into leaving Afghanistan to continue her resistance from the outside. “Everything we did was challenging,” she says. “Working as a woman in Afghanistan was a challenge in itself.”
Her thoughts are echoed by Durrani, who spoke of the difficulties of running her underground organisation. “Logistics, security of our students, of our teachers, negotiating with the communities, banking, sending money so we can pay our staff. There is also psychological stress, in not being able to do these things legally as you would do in another country.”
It is a sense of duty that keeps drawing Durrani back. “I was raised to believe that I have the responsibility towards my community. If I don’t do this, in 10 years the situation will be much worse,” she says, adding that she is also “a hopeless romantic, deeply in love with Afghanistan”.
Her efforts are rewarded in the success of her students. “Our first batch will be graduating from grade 12 shortly,” she says, pride evident in her voice. “I want to expand to at least 10 more provinces by the end of the year.”
For Durrani, education is the key to resistance. “It is very important that this generation is educated within our own values and systems, to cultivate leaders locally,” she says, quickly adding, “I’m optimistic about it.”
A similar sense of responsibility keeps Paryani going: “I continue this struggle because of the millions of women who are still living in that geography of Afghanistan undergoing oppression.”
Maria adds with confidence, “This darkness will pass and Afghan women will shine again.”
Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist based in India. She has previously lived and worked in Kabul, Afghanistan, and writes about the region for publications including The Guardian, Foreign Policy and NPR