Munireh Hossein Zada, 19, at her computer at the Code to Inspire class in Herat. (Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

Can Women Lead the Way in Afghanistan's Growth in Tech?

TakePart went to Afghanistan to meet the women of Code to Inspire.
Dec 5, 2016· 9 MIN READ
Campbell MacDiarmid is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. He has covered the Middle East for Foreign Policy, The Telegraph, Maclean's Magazine and other publications.

HERAT, Afghanistan—It’s a bright autumn day, and a group of teenage girls are walking down a bustling street in this religiously conservative city in western Afghanistan, near the Iranian border. Giggling and gossiping, they clutch black cloaks tight about their faces as they arrive at a nondescript villa.

Inside, the girls enter a purple-painted classroom and turn on computers. As they sit down, some of them remove their abayas to reveal colorful headscarves. Waiting for their laptops to boot, the girls are transformed, becoming serious and studious.

“In the past, girls didn’t study computer science,” Munireh Hossein Zada tells TakePart. “We want to change this situation.”

The 19-year-old student is feisty, confident, and—by traditional standards for Afghan women—extraordinary. She’s not just educated but digitally literate, tweeting in English and writing computer code in several languages. Her friends call her “the granddaughter of Steve Jobs.”

She’s one of 50 Afghan students learning practical computer coding skills in a pioneering new program called Code to Inspire. It’s not just the course material that is revolutionary for Afghanistan—a country in which computer science is still often taught from books—but also its target audience: young women ages 15 to 25. Just by attending extracurricular computer classes, Zada and her classmates are overcoming some of the obvious and persistent gender-based limitations in Afghanistan, where women are less educated than men and underrepresented in the workforce.

Girls at their computers at the Code to Inspire class in Herat. (Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

But it takes more than an education to exceed the strong presumption that girls like Zada will become stay-at-home housewives and the men in their lives will be the breadwinners and decision makers.

Beyond schooling, Code to Inspire is working to build a path to prosperity for skilled Afghan women by helping them find opportunities to work from home and get paid for it in a country where weak infrastructure means banking is not accessible to many Afghans. That has the potential to upend the paradigm, with greater financial independence for women fostering broader positive social change.

Together, the women are at the forefront of a generational change that is seeing more Afghan women striving toward greater independence and freedom.

Zada states it more simply: “I’m a strong girl, and I want to prove that Afghan women can be strong.”

The Mother of All Problems

Afghanistan today is near a precipice, ever in danger of returning to the dark years of Taliban rule. Since most foreign troops left the country in 2014, Afghans have experienced a deterioration in both security and the economy, something a corrupt and inefficient national unity government has so far been unable to resolve.

A Taliban insurgency now controls more territory than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion forced the fundamentalist Islamist group from power in 2001. Its resurgence has been accompanied by an increase in violence, with a record 11,000 Afghans killed or injured by violence in 2015, according to the United Nations. This year looks to be equally bloody, with the capital of Kabul rocked by some of the worst attacks since 2001.

The parlous security has made many Afghans skittish. With the initial fall of the Taliban, tens of billions of dollars of international aid flooded into Afghanistan, but the economy has failed to adjust to the drying up of donor dollars. With growth stalled, unemployment has hit 40 percent. The reaction of many Afghans has been to leave—an exodus of more than 200,000 fled to Europe last year alone.

Munireh Hossein Zada, 19, studies computer science at Herat

University. (Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

At the heart of many of Afghanistan’s problems, development experts believe, is the low level of women’s education. Without “institutionalising the equal rights of women, the country will never be able to stabilise and develop in a sustainable way,” according to officials at U.N. Women Afghanistan.

Only around 24 percent of Afghan women (age 15 or older) can read, compared with roughly 51 percent of men, according to 2015 statistics from UNESCO. Even fewer women, about 19 percent, participate in the workforce. On the other hand, educated women are more likely to work and to raise healthy children in wealthier households.

Cultural norms can make getting an education difficult though.

“There are a lot of limitations for girls,” says Zada. “The challenge is security. There’s discrimination. People think badly of a girl alone” in public.

She’s referring to the many women who cannot leave home unless accompanied by a male relative. To attend these classes, Zada had to overcome the reservations of the more conservative-minded members of her family, including her mother. She says, however, that she is persuasive: “I can change their minds.”

Coding to Inspire in Herat

Fereshteh Forough hopes her organization will foster this confidence to create independent young women. The 29-year-old founded Code to Inspire last year with a vision of creating a safe space where families will accept their daughters learning computer coding—a skill that will enable them to find well-paid work that can even be done from home.

“There’s a lack of safe place for women to work in Afghanistan,” she says. “So I thought, if they can find employment online, that’s a safe space.”

Since classes began last November, Code to Inspire’s four instructors have taught the students the basics of computer coding. In the second year of the course, the girls will start work on a practical project to develop a mobile app to target a particular problem in the community. They are brainstorming ideas, including an app to report street harassment of women.

Forough is familiar with the challenges facing Afghan women, having returned to her homeland in 2002 after being raised as a refugee in Iran. Studying at Herat University, she realized the limitations of the Afghan education system. An idea to cultivate greater gender equality germinated.

If more women were breadwinners, she realized, more would become household decision makers, resulting in positive grassroots social change. “With Code to Inspire I would love to create a strong, supportive community of women working in tech in Afghanistan who can support each other, hire other women, and support other women,” she says of her ultimate vision.

Samira Ansari, a student at Code to Inspire. (Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

By the time her first students graduate from the two-year course next November, Forough hopes to partner them with international organizations to give them the opportunity to earn a living by working from home.

“We’re in conversation now with private companies to provide internships and employment at the end of the program,” she says. “The goal is that they will be fully employed by companies and organizations online.”

Remote jobs require the ability to receive payments online, a challenge when many Afghans don’t have bank accounts. Forough believes adopting the cryptocurrency Bitcoin could help overcome the problem. But using the blockchain digital currency brings challenges of its own. Its value can fluctuate wildly, and purchasing goods or exchanging it in Afghanistan is difficult, if not impossible. “There’s still a lot of issues with accessing Bitcoin in Afghanistan,” Forough concedes. Initially, Code to Inspire will act as an exchange allowing the girls to change their Bitcoins into Afghanis.

“This at least gives the students access to a form of online banking,” says Forough.

Her decision to launch Code to Inspire in Herat and not Kabul was deliberate. The city is seldom threatened by the bombings that are increasingly disrupting life in the capital, where the streets are crowded with blast walls and checkpoints. Herat’s streets are clean and calm by comparison. Even the electricity is more reliable, although slow download speeds can be an issue.

“To open a coding school, the infrastructure and security is very important,” says Forough. “Herat is one of the safest cities, and the infrastructure is a little bit better.”

Herat also has a long history of valuing female education. The city owes much of its illustrious history to a woman. Goharshad Begum was a powerful Timurid queen remembered today for leading a cultural renaissance through patronage of poets, architects, and artists of the era and declaring Herat the capital of a 15th-century central Asian empire.

Centuries later, the Taliban reversed course for the girls of Afghanistan with its deeply repressive rule. Girls were forbidden from attending school and expected to remain home and become housewives. With public female education banned, Herat became known for underground schools for girls, made famous in the West by the book The Sewing Circles of Herat.

Azita Azimi, an instructor at Code to Inspire, is helping one of her students. (Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

Like many women who grew up in Herat at this time, both of Code to Inspire’s female teachers received their early education clandestinely. Azita Azimi is a soft-spoken 23-year-old computer science graduate who has vivid memories of her first underground classes in a neighbor’s home. “There were a lot of girls. I was seven, one girl was 18, and we were all in one class. I understood that it was secret and that we should hide it.”

When the Taliban was driven out in 2001 she attended school for the first time, completing an academic year in just two months. “It was so exciting to study at school with classmates of the same age,” she recalls.

Today her students have the same hunger for learning. “When the students came here, they didn’t know how to use the mouse,” Azimi says. “Now they are able to code using JavaScript to create interactive web pages.”

Such examples illustrate how Afghanistan’s low literacy rates belie an enormous appetite for education. “It’s normal for Afghans to be focused on education,” says Hasib Rassa, a program manager at Code to Inspire, adding that it’s often poverty that prevents families from sending their children to school.

Design and Innovation

BIG ISSUE vol. 8

TakePart's "Design and Innovation" series highlights the people and cutting edge technology working to solve the world's most pressing problems.

Given Herat’s history and status, it’s no surprise to find other digital literacy programs for women in the city. Headquartered in another villa across town is the Digital Citizen Fund. The organization runs classes in 10 local high schools, teaching girls entrepreneurship and basic computing skills, with a focus on introducing them to social media. “We want to make digital citizens in Afghanistan,” explains teacher Fareshteh Aria. “Women can make a different life for themselves outside their home to get freedom and learn online.”

Digital Citizen Fund was started by Roya Mahboob, a 29-year-old Afghan businesswoman and entrepreneur who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2013 for her work to change cultural stereotypes of women in Afghanistan. After studying computer science in Herat, Mahboob started a software company, only to encounter numerous challenges as a woman in business. “We were threatened. We got followed. It was very difficult for us to work,” she says. “I was threatened by the local Taliban and conservative families.”

Mahboob realized the key to escaping this was to operate online, and she envisaged Digital Citizen Fund as a way for women to create online identities. “When I became a digital citizen, everything changed for me,” she says. “I want these same opportunities for women so they can empower themselves and have a digital voice.”

Under mentorship offered in the program, girls have gone on to start successful businesses, often with an online component. One student, 18-year-old Soosan Noorzai, says being able to research and order equipment online allowed her to start an ice cream manufacturing company from her family home. After one month she recouped her investment, she says, “and the budget is in my hand now.”

Recently Digital Citizen Fund introduced a coding component into its program so its students can launch websites and open online stores.

Such initiatives are necessary because the Afghan education system is failing its young people in information and communications technology studies, says Herat IT professional Saifuddin Sepehr. “Classes are not practical, just teachers reading slides. University students don’t know why they are learning JavaScript, even in their fifth semester.”

The 26-year-old runs a local software development company and has received funding from USAID, the federal agency that distributes global civilian aid, to teach practical coding skills to women. “In ICT you need to be writing code,” he says, not just reading about it. “Otherwise you can’t find jobs in the sector.”

Not all projects to kick-start Herat’s tech scene have met with success, however. The IT sector hasn’t been immune from the wasteful spending and corruption that characterized Afghanistan’s post-invasion donor economy. A notable example is the Herat Information Technology Incubator Program, launched amid fanfare in 2011 as Afghanistan’s first Silicon Valley–style start-up incubator.

The initiative was funded with $46.8 million from the U.S. government and received support from IBM and Google. “This is an important step forward in helping Afghanistan’s emerging technology sector accelerate its progress,” a U.S. official told the media at the time.

Yet by the start of 2016, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found that “neither the incubator model nor the businesses it sought to develop appear to have been sustainable.” The incubator “did nothing,” and contractor staff were rarely on-site. The money had been wasted, with nothing to show for it.

This type of large-scale funding by international organizations has largely dried up with the drawdown of the U.S. presence, according to Nasrat Khalid, an Afghan innovation activist living in Kabul. “The last three years have been really slow on investment on the ICT side,” he says.

(Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

With less funding available, initiatives such as Code to Inspire and Digital Citizen Fund will need to produce results to survive. On the market side, Afghan IT companies are also being forced to become profitable during a tough transition to a more market-driven economy.

“The local companies are now picking up,” says Khalid.

Despite the poor economic situation, Khalid sees opportunities for talented young IT professionals coming out of programs like Code to Inspire. “In the future, these guys could well become the IT leaders of this country,” he says.

He cautions them to think creatively and not be solely focused on finding a job. “For the girls in Herat, their first priority has to be to create something. That will be much easier than finding a professional job.”

He points to clever digital solutions that are tackling local problems. Many relate to Afghanistan’s security situation: There's an application to notify users of events such as bombings, with alarms and the ability to mark oneself safe after attacks, and a digital blood bank to pair patients in need of transfusions with compatible donors.

Skilled female IT professionals should have no trouble finding a job, says Javid Hamdard, president of the National ICT Companies Association of Afghanistan. “I would love to hire a woman IT expert,” he says, but the problem is a shortage of qualified candidates.

Back at the Code to Inspire house, classes are stalled as the girls wait for new software to download. But Zada doesn't pause when asked what the future holds. “I want to have a company for myself and be very rich,” she says.

Design and Innovation