Courageous Leadership: Activist-entrepreneurs on working to educate women and girls in Afghanistan

Pashtana Durrani and Roya Mahboob visited St. Kate’s as part of the Women of Color Leadership Series
Speakers Pashtana Durrani and Roya Mahboob on stage

Pashtana Durrani (left) and Roya Mahboob (right) spoke about their paths to leadership. Photo by Tara Sloane. 

On March 30, St. Catherine University welcomed Pashtana Durrani, founder of LEARN Afghanistan, and Roya Mahboob, founder and CEO of Digital Citizen Fund. During the Women of Color Leadership Series event, hosted by the School of Business and Katie Leadership Impact, the two activists and entrepreneurs spoke at The O'Shaughnessy about their leadership journeys and their efforts to educate women and girls in Afghanistan. 

Roya Mahboob became interested in technology when she first saw a computer in an internet cafe in her hometown of Herat, Afghanistan. Her passion led her to pursue a degree in computer science and then found Digital Citizen Fund in 2013, her nonprofit whose mission is to help girls and women achieve financial independence through education and technology.

“All this happened to me because I had access to education,” said Mahboob. “Education built a foundation for me that helped me to believe in my skills and my abilities.” 

The Digital Citizen Fund has built technology centers in schools to provide women and girls with internet access and teach digital literacy, supported a financial literacy program to help women and girls work toward financial independence, and started an Afghan girls robotics team, which has traveled internationally to compete. Mahboob was interested in providing alternate paths for girls outside of the traditional emphasis on marriage.

“If my Afghan sisters had access to tech, they would also begin to see the world in many more colors than before,” said Mahboob. “You can put physical barriers to keep someone in or someone out, but a laptop and a stable internet connection can overcome any barriers, any borders.”

Pashtana Durrani, founder of LEARN Afghanistan, a grassroots organization that works to expand educational opportunities for girls in Afghanistan, also spoke of the ongoing struggle for accessible education and the need for courageous leadership. 

“We have to think about all the women who are still making sure girls stay in school, and we have to make sure all of us are working towards that effort,” said Durrani. 

Durrani reminded the audience that the history of Afghanistan spans thousands of years before the Taliban and has included many courageous and inspiring women leaders, such as Queen Soraya, who championed women’s rights in Afghanistan even when the West was slow to embrace such causes. Though Durrani organization’s operations have had to shift since the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, she remains hopeful about the courage of Afghan women. 

“In a country where education right now is banned for women, women still show up,” said Durrani. “Women show up for each other. When we talk about women in Afghanistan, we talk about the fact that they are being abused — nobody talks about the leadership, the courage it takes to show up to that school.”


About the Women of Color Leadership Series

The event was hosted by the School of Business and the Katie Leadership Impact program. It was the latest in the Women of Color Leadership Series, which brings high-profile leaders to campus to share their stories and paths to leadership.