When Fereshteh Forough graduated with a degree in computer science from Herat University, she knew she was an exception to the rule.
When she moved to Afghanistan one year after the fall of the Taliban after a childhood in Iran, Forough was well aware she had already overcome many challenges to get an education – and would face many more as she looked for a job.
The Taliban Islamic fundamentalist movement took power in Afghanistan in 1996. This marked the start of a catastrophic time for Afghan women’s rights. Under the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sharia law, women who once attended co-ed schools, worked in offices, drove cars, traveled unaccompanied by men – and even wore miniskirts – were forced to stay home and required to wear the burqa.
In 2001, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan released the Taliban’s grip on the country, but the group’s rule had a lasting impact on people’s perception of women’s capabilities. In terms of job opportunities for women, teaching in an all-girls school is a considered respectable option; any field that involves working alongside men is frowned upon.
But Forough always knew women were just as capable as men. So, after completing her master’s degree from the Technical University of Berlin, she came home and opened Afghanistan’s first all-female coding school, Code to Inspire (CTI).
“When we started recruiting girls in Herat in the fall of 2015, we wanted to show them their value and empower them to break down traditional barriers,” Forough said.
Under the eye of the international community and with budding support from the Afghan government, many Afghan women are taking their chance to challenge the social and economic restrictions that the Taliban left behind. Currently, 85 percent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate, with no formal education. But a survey by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) found that 80 percent of Afghan women now have access to mobile technology, either through their own phone or one belonging to a family member.
Forough is one of the few women to join Afghanistan’s emerging technology sector. Her coding school trains 50 girls and teaches elementary web design, along with mobile app development. She believes that her school – a recipient of the Google Rise Award for nonprofits promoting computer science education – makes her students self-reliant, upgrades their status in society and broadens their perspectives because it gives them access to the rest of the world.
“These women have better chances to find jobs based on their skills,” Forough said. “As women earn income and support their families, their communities will gradually realize the value of working women. The man who abuses his wife or daughter at home may begin to see and treat her differently.”
In a country where only a few years ago the internet, television and even music were banned, many see the growing number of women in technology as a hopeful sign of progress.
“Technology provides women with a unique opportunity to learn, work and have sustainable livelihoods, regardless of geographical location, age or gender,” says Omar Mansoor Ansari, president of TechNation, an I.T. services firm in Kabul. “This is what women in Afghanistan are gradually realizing, and more and more girls are joining tech.”
Not only does a career in computers offer Afghan women financial independence, it also gives them the chance to work from home. That’s a key reason many women are attracted to the tech field and, crucially, why many families support their daughters’ involvement with it.
Around the country, companies and institutions are recognizing the benefits of helping women get into tech. TechNation provides a number of programs to teach women coding and expand their entrepreneurial capabilities. One of the firm’s initiatives is TechWomen Afghanistan, a network of 150 members that regularly organizes coding workshops and events. Each year, more than 100 young women aged 12–18 participate in Technovation Afghanistan, a global challenge in which contestants create mobile phone apps and learn how to launch startups. And TechDera, a community technology center based in Kabul, provides women with training in mobile app design, web development and Java programming.
For many Afghan women, technology has transformed their lives. As a programmer, TechNation communications assistant Shakiba Ibrahimkhail has the freedom to choose where and when she wants to work, and the types of projects she wants to work on. “Coding can help me be my own boss,” she says.
Forough wants to help more women feel that way. Her plan for CTI in the next year is to enroll more students, expand to other cities and continue developing mobile apps for education and games, for providing health tips and raising awareness about women’s issues in the country.
“Sometimes as an outsider, it can be scary to think about programming and coding as potential careers,” Forough said when asked for her advice to girls who want to learn to code. “But don’t be afraid of challenges. They make you stronger and give you perspective in life. And once you learn, you will see how coding is so empowering.”