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Afghan activist's memoir details her inspirational fight to educate women


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: When the Taliban roared back to power in Afghanistan in 2021, education activist Pashtana Durrani, then just 24 years old, already had some 7,000 girls enrolled in her organization called LEARN Afghanistan.

The schools were shuttered. Pashtana was forced to flee. And she's now living in exile here in the U.S., still working to educate girls in secret back home.

I spoke with Pashtana earlier today about her remarkable life story told in her new book, "Last to Eat, Last to Learn."

And I began by asking her about the title.

Pashtana Durrani, Author, "Last to Eat, Last to Learn: My Life in Afghanistan Fighting to Educate Women": It's basically about the daughters or the first daughters who are always choosing the last ones to be the ones who eat the last because they have to do all the chores. They have to pick up after everyone and they have to take care of everyone.

And then the same methodology with me and my co-author, we thought about it, and we were like, they're also chosen the last ones to actually learn, because they have to take care of everyone before they choose themselves to learn. So it's basically a dedication to all of them, especially girls, young girls, because they're chosen last to do everything.

So it's last to eat, last to learn.

Amna Nawaz: This is your message to all of them out there in Afghanistan.

Pashtana Durrani: Yes. Yes.

Amna Nawaz: But that wasn't how you were raised. Your father made sure you were raised very differently.

Pashtana Durrani: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: Why?

Pashtana Durrani: I mean, because that's, again, the thing.

I was -- the day I was born, my dad was like, oh, no, this is going to be my son. So I had all the privilege as a son. If I was raised as an elder daughter, I would have definitely been one of those girls. So, for me, it was very different. But, then again, I witnessed all of that throughout my life. And, consciously, I had to make that choice to make sure that this is talked about.

But, personally, I was raised in a very privileged life, and I was raised very nicely, and I talked over everyone, and I was pretty loud, yes. I was a very spoiled kid, yes, definitely.

Amna Nawaz: Even though you spent much of your life growing up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, you made the decision to go back to Afghanistan. Your father had been going back and forth.

And you started an organization so that other girls could learn, the same way you did. Tell me about that organization and why that was important.

Pashtana Durrani: When I was in high school, that was the first time I realized that we are in a refugee camp. Like, this is not the country that we were supposed to be in, you know?

And the discrimination came with it and everything came with it. And we were seen differently, wearing a scarf, or the way my father used to dress up in a turban or something. That was all seen differently. And then, most importantly, it was probably me following him wanting to go back to Afghanistan.

But, at that point, I was so crazily in love with Afghanistan, I was like, I need to go back. Like, I want to go back. Then, at the same time, when I ended up in Afghanistan, the first thing I saw was like, even in our own country, we didn't have access to the rights that we are entitled to, that the Constitution entitled us to.

So, for me, the most important thing was with that group that I resonated most with was those young girls, my own cousins. And we say in Pashto or in Islam that charity begins at home. So we had to start at home with all the efforts. And that's how LEARN came into being, because I really wanted my cousins to go to school.

I wanted my family members to end up accessing the same education that I had or the people in refugee camp had. So that's why.

Amna Nawaz: And when the Taliban reclaimed power in 2021, you had to shut down your schools. They banned most girls from going to school after a certain grade. You had to flee because you yourself were targeted.

But you're still running the organization from afar. How? How many girls are you still able to teach and how are they able to study?

Pashtana Durrani: Oh, it's an effort.


Pashtana Durrani: It's an effort.

I -- in the middle of the night, we're sometimes talking to the students. Sometimes, we have to do meetings at 3:00 a.m. even today. But at the same time, I think it's so rewarding. It's so rewarding. We do a lot of our work in person. More than 300 girls go to school every day, walk to school every day. So that's a big thing. More than 30 teachers every day teach in person. So that's a big deal for me.

And then more than 40 people are employed right now who are doing something amazing like this, which is banned in Afghanistan, but whatever.


Amna Nawaz: But it is banned.

Pashtana Durrani: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: I mean, are you worried for their safety?

Pashtana Durrani: Most of the time, yes. I get extremely worried and paranoid sometimes, and I cannot sleep.

But then, other times, like, I just call them and I talk to them, and they have become part of the family. But then, at the same time, it's important for me because, in the next 10 years, there might be not a person, or even if I am, might not be this young to be able to do everything.

So I would want more girls to get that empowerment and have that sort of access to opportunities and become the people that they are. My goal is, by the end of like 2030, we have more than 3,400 leaders who are all young girls, who are all in those provinces, and they lead a movement that could hopefully rebuild Afghanistan from where it has been destroyed.

Amna Nawaz: What about your goals for yourself? And then we should disclose here, I was actually part of the team that did help you to evacuate. It took months to get you out of Afghanistan.

Pashtana Durrani: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: I met you at the airport in Boston when you arrived, help you get settled at Wellesley College, where you have built a life. You have graduated. You're getting your master's degree from Harvard. You continue your work.

I mean, what does the future hold for you?

Pashtana Durrani: Immediately, I want to get graduated from Harvard immediately.


Pashtana Durrani: But also, at the same time, I want to build 34 schools by the end of 2025, which is a personal goal.

Amna Nawaz: OK.

Pashtana Durrani: Big personal.

I'm also working on this nonprofit incubator that is supposed to sustain humanitarian efforts and educational efforts in conflict zones in all different regions of the world, especially Middle East and Central Asia and South Asia. So, I have been working with that, at Wellesley on that, especially focusing on women.

And then, hopefully, I will continue doing what I do. And I love what I do, so yes.

Amna Nawaz: What do you think your father, who I know you lost a few years ago, what do you think he would say if he could see you now?

Pashtana Durrani: I think he would be extremely proud. Like, I can say that now confidently.

But then, at the same time, I'm like, I hope -- I wish he could see it, and I hope he could see it now. But he definitely would be proud, yes.

Amna Nawaz: The author is Pashtana Durrani. The book is "Last to Eat, Last to Learn."

Pashtana, always a pleasure to see you. Thank you for being here.

Pashtana Durrani: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

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