coding a future for women

-afghanistan women move into global tech-

Photographs by Code to Inspire

          It's after school on seshanbe —that’s Tuesday in Farsi—and a group of girls in rosari are huddled over their laptops, intently focused on keystrokes. One girl leans over to see her neighbor's screen and again looks at her own. "Aha!" She enters a few more keystrokes, edits a bit of HTML, clicks the mouse, leans back and smiles. She has made the last updates needed to successfully design her first website.  


These girls are students at Code to Inspire, a 501-(c)(3) nonprofit after school program in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan. Code to Inspire (or CTI) teaches girls ages 14-25 to code using CSS, HTML, and JavaScript. These young women are learning to build custom websites, develop mobile apps, and backend edit.


Code to Inspire aims to assist program graduates with job and internship placements. The nonprofit’s goal is to take advantage of an increasing demand for computer coding freelancers who can code online and work remotely. Due to lingering gender prejudices in the country, work and travel out of the home remains a challenge for women. Such behaviors can be seen in violation of conservative iterations of traditions and cultural code. This code claims that women should not leave their home unattended and that their primary duty is to care for their family within the home.


By working remotely,  graduates are not required to abandon their domestic duties. Rather, they can bring additional income to their family while doing so. Ideally, these women won’t have to choose between traditional social roles and making an income. In the CTI model, these two are no longer mutually exclusive. Rather, they become entirely separate, yet related, opportunities. In order to work as a remote coder, all a woman needs is a computer and an internet connection.


Afghanistan, itself, is not a large tech market and not many families allow their daughters to move about unaccompanied even in their own cities, due to safety or security concerns. However, for now, CTI is a safe and secure place to gain marketable skills, digital literacy and job experience.  


Fereshteh Forough is a woman from Afghanistan who started this program in the hopes that more Afghan women will be able to participate in the global tech world. Born an Afghan refugee in Iran, Forough and her family  moved to Herat, Afghanistan  in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban. Forough attended college and received her bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Herat University. She later earned a Master’s degree from Technical University of Berlin in Germany.


After school Forough returned to Afghanistan and taught as a faculty professor  in the Computer Science Department at Herat University for three years. In 2013, Forough was a TED Talk speaker and in 2015, she was a Clinton Global Initiative participant.


Forough also served on the board of the Women’s Annex Foundation, an organization serving women and children in Asia. After returning to Afghanistan, she saw a lot of challenges for women in access and ability to succeed professionally.  


On Code to Inspire’s blogpost on International Women’s Day, Forough wrote a compelling call to action in a piece titled “From a Refugee to a CEO.” Forough writes, “Women don’t need sympathy, women need the genuine understanding of what they have been through and how the community can stand with them and treat them equally as men.”


Currently, sixty-eight percent of young women in Afghanistan lack formal education and are illiterate. There is only sixteen percent female labor participation in the country. Whereas, there is a documented seventy-two percent participation in other economically disparaged countries.  Since the fall of the Taliban, the country no longer sees strict exclusion of women from public education. Instead, there is a whopping 3.6 million women in schools in Afghanistan. Now, more than ever, the country is focused on improving women’s access to education as well as training women in diversified trades, including computer literacy. From inside a small building in Herat, Forough is part of the growing movement to educate women. Today, she leads a group of eighty through the process of reading and writing in a handful of popular computer languages, which will eventually lead them to economic autonomy.


Forough founded Code to Inspire as a nonprofit in January of 2015. Forough believed that if women had skill, access, and an internet connection, they would be able to work from home. This may not sound like much to a westerner, but something as simple as working from home could change the face of culture in Afghanistan. To explain, it’s important to understand a little bit about the country’s recent history.


The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, rose out of the ashes of the 1996 Afghan War and enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The group implemented extreme restraints on Afghan women. For example, women were not legally allowed to leave the private sphere without a male family member. Today, while not illegal to travel alone, it is socially discouraged and in some places forbidden. In some areas, there are still documented cases of assault against women. And just twenty years ago, violence against women was rampant.


From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban forbade women to leave home without an escort. Women could not legally work outside the home, even as teachers. Only a few doctors were allowed access to treat other women in designated hospitals. Covered head to toe in a burqa, women could not use cosmetics or present their bodies in any small way. In some extreme cases even fingernail polish could cause a woman to have her finger cut off.


By 1996, the Taliban controlled a majority of Afghanistan and banned all women from employment. This had a devastating impact on household incomes, especially on households run by widows, which were common.


The female employment ban was felt greatly in the education system. Within the city of Kabul alone, the ruling affected 106,256 females, 148,223 male students and 8,000 female university undergraduates. Tallied were 7,793 female teachers dismissed from their jobs. Sixty-three schools closed due to a sudden lack of teachers. During the reign of Taliban, there were 900,000 students, many banned from schools. Neither girls nor boys could receive an education.


Even if female teachers were allowed to work, there was a ban on girls specifically attending school. In 2009, every month fifty schools were attacked. Girls were targeted and subjected to acid attacks and teachers were assassinated. When a Taliban raid discovered a woman running an informal school in her home, they beat the children and broke the teacher’s leg by throwing her down a flight of stairs, afterward imprisoning her. They threatened to stone her family publicly if she refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Taliban and their laws.


While shocking to those in the West, these social restrictions were rooted in an interpretation of Islamic Law intended to protect women and uphold them as sacred. The intention was to create a "secure environment where the chastity and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct," reportedly based on Pashtunwali beliefs about living in purdah. Under the Taliban, these beliefs were twisted into extreme laws and violent crimes.


 In October 2001, Afghan Northern Alliance and U.S forces invaded Afghanistan and contributed to driving  Taliban's leadership out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan. The government was replaced by a new governing administration under Hamid Karzai. Karzai became the first democratically elected leader in Afghanistan in 2004. Under his administration, Taliban-driven violence and the strict interpretation of Islamic law fell. Both girls and boys returned to reopened schools and women were allowed to return to work. Today, two decades later, there are 9 million registered students. One million them are women and girls.


The increased participation of women in schools and the workplace has since shifted the cultural norm in urban areas. But despite movement toward the reformation of women’s social issues, social stigmas still exist. In March 2012, President Hamid Karzai endorsed a "code of conduct" which was issued by the Ulema Council. This code stated things like, "women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices." Karzai said that the rules were in line with Islamic law.


Women working outside the home are still viewed skeptically in many areas. Even today, women are encouraged to bring a male family member when in public. These restrictions make entering the workforce, establishing financial independence or helping bear the financial burden of supporting a family incredibly difficult for all women. Rural areas tend to be more extreme, urban less extreme in these measures.


In addition to Islamic social code, Afghanistan still exhibits cultural codes and traditions as well. Traditionally, in Afghanistan, there has been a tremendous social pressure put on men to adhere to certain masculine stereotypes. One stereotype being to maintain public "honor." Paramount to a man's honor is his ability to provide for and discipline his family. This standard becomes complicated when a wife or mother opts to earn an income or leave the home to study or go to work. Such actions can publicly disgrace the man. They can make him appear incapable of providing for his family. "Peer pressure among men takes the form of verbal harassment and, in the worst cases, persecution. The jokes, slights, and name calling indicate that the male in question has lax morals or lacks the masculinity to control his womenfolk form a critical, insidious, and at times painful part of socialization." Historically, such complications have made it difficult for many gender mainstreaming initiatives and women-based programs to succeed. Ultimately, even when instituted, cultural reactions don’t abide.


 In 2013, there were multiple assaults “against high-profile women, with many of the perpetrators openly stating that the motivation of their attacks was that their female victims were working, or in public roles.” According to a series of interviews collected by Amnesty International, "These women are perceived as challenging existing power structures and defying cultural, religious and social norms concerning the role of women in society and, as such, are deliberately targeted, regardless of whether they are doctors, journalists, educators, female police officers or elected representatives.”


Forough saw this complication and immediately found a workaround. Code to Inspire provides a safe and secure place for women to gain marketable skills, technical literacy and job experience. Upon completion of the program, graduates are placed in jobs where they have the option to work from home or a city computer lab. It respects a woman’s need for financial autonomy and does not publicly offend traditional values.


Instead of working against established cultural norms in Afghanistan, Forough has chosen to work with them. Here model subtly shifts the landscape in a way that speaks to both men and women; religion and culture. The CTI model makes waves that don't rock the boat but assist in its movement toward a more prosperous shore. When both parents in a family can earn an income, it increases the wealth and economic stability of the entire family, and ultimately, the region.


Forough’s remote employment model shifts the focus of “women’s autonomy” from a cultural movement toward an individual one. While it serves to bolster equality between the genders, it bolsters the individual to make her own choices about cultural reform.


Computer sciences in general, and coding in particular, are highly marketable skills for young women in Herat because of its universal application. After all, computer coding is a universal language wholly disinterested in the demographics of its writers.


Boshra Rasouly, a tenth grade student at CTI describes coding and digital literacy as a way to communicate with a world outside of her hometown. “We can have lives outside of home, work, or school, and women can participate . . . and communicate with the world and share their ideas on solutions to the world’s biggest problems.” By working remotely for international companies, women in Afghanistan can be a part of the evolving tech world. They can participate not only by building usable websites and mobile applications but by default become a part of a larger conversation about technology and its service.


CTI has forged partnerships with Google, PwC, and Deloitte, an international consulting and accounting firm. Additionally, CTI has established partnerships with nonprofits and key government officials in many countries, including hosting the Afghan Ambassador to America at their end of year gala.


One of the biggest obstacles to women’s autonomy in Afghanistan is economic instability. Without the ability to openly travel for interviews, accreditations or training, work can be hard to come by. Without a paycheck, women rely solely on their families or partners to determine their future. Access to money is not the same thing as financial autonomy. Autonomy means you have full discretion over how it is spent. The ability for women to work remotely means they have more control over the number of hours they work, the job they choose and therefore, the income they receive. Work in the global tech arena means CTI graduates can step outside of their neighborhood economies, controlled mostly by men, to interact with a larger economic community.


For economically disparaged countries like Afghanistan to see a rise in its (16%) female labor participation, it will need a generation to lead by example. In turn, this generation will need two things: Access to global industries and the practical skills to participate in them.  Luckily, Code to Inspire is training them now.

1. Michael Griffin (2001). Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban movement in Afghanistan. London: Pluto Press, pp6-11/159-165).

2. Latifa. My forbidden face: Growing up under the Taliban. UK: Virago Press pp29-107.

3. Marsden, Peter. (1998). The Taliban: War, religion and the new order in Afghanistan. London: Zed Books Ltd, pp88-101).

Code to Inspire. Afghanistan Technology. Fereshteh Forough.

                                                                                                                                                                                         Photo from Take Part. Photo by Campbell MacDiarmid 

Code to Inspire. Afghanistan Technology. Fereshteh Forough.

Interview with fereshteh Forough

Code to Inspire. Afghanistan Technology. Fereshteh Forough.

How did you come up with the idea to start CTI?


During my educational journey in Technology I have experienced many challenges as a student and teacher in technology field which led me to establish Code to Inspire on January 2015 as a social enterprise aims to hitch women's economic and social advancement on to Afghanistan's growing tech industry. Courses in coding, access to tech & professional resources, and job placement will enable CTI students to attain employment that is both financially rewarding and socially accessible. In areas where women's travel can be heavily restricted, the ability to work remotely is a key tool in the push for equality. Access to the wealth of the global tech economy enables CTI students to add unique value to their households and their communities, and to challenge the traditional gender roles in Afghanistan with the best argument out there, results.


Who are your role models?


I grew up in a family of eight kids. Living life in a place where they treat you as an unwanted guest was not a pleasant experience. Even accessing a basic right like education was a big deal. Through all that, my main inspiration was my mother. She learned how to make dresses which she sold to buy us school supplies.

Additionally, she always emphasized education and wanted her children to have the best (education) possible. During that difficult time, she found a way to bring income to the family and help us go to school.


What were the roadblocks/challenges in starting the non-profit?


I faced many challenges starting from the first day I thought about making this happen. I wanted to start a school that girls could join without worrying about security and cultural barriers.. that is no easy feat. Preparing the right papers/documents here in New York to operate as a non-profit and to raise the needed funds for our coding school were also huge tasks.


Despite the challenges, I am persistent and energized because every day, I learn something new and meet inspiring people who share their knowledge with me. It gives me hope to know that 50 girls in Afghanistan are learning and growing everyday.

Photographs from Code to Inspire Instagram feed

How many girls in the school at a time? How many students have you had overall?


CTI is an after-school program. We opened the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan at Herat city on November 2015 where we are currently educating 50 female students aged 15-25 form high school to computer science educational background. CTI offers different curriculum for students such as coding with HTML, CSS, Java Script and mobile application development using Unity and Java Script frameworks. Our program is free of charge for female students where we provide a very safe and secure place to come and enjoy learning in a comfortable educational environment. 


Tell us about the typical experience for young women in Afghanistan as far as education? I know more women are attending school but what obstacles are they facing? 


I was born as an Afghan refugee in Iran during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I finished my high school there. A year after the fall of Taliban, my family and I moved to Herat, where I was able to get my Bachelor’s degree in computer science. There, I noticed that most female students who graduated from the program couldn’t find jobs and stayed at home after their education. There were many reasons for this.


Many families prefer that their daughter become a teacher because it is considered a more appropriate job for women. There are only so many opportunities for teaching computer science. If a female graduate of the computer science program gets a job offer outside her hometown, there is a big chance her family won’t agree with her to leave the city – due to insecurity. Young women can’t travel by ground, even if they have a male companion. And not many families can afford to purchase plane tickets for their daughters. Furthermore, it is not part of our culture for a woman to live in another city by herself, unless she has a trusted family member living with her. All these factors limit women.

However, women’s situation has improved in the past several years. Less than a million students- very few of them girls- were enrolled in schools during the Taliban’s rule. Today, millions of girls go to schools. There are hundreds of public and private universities. A 2014 Kabul University study found that 40 percent of STEM students are females, and that percentage is probably higher, now. Nevertheless, 85 percent of women in Afghanistan do not have formal education and are illiterate. Only 24.3 percent of Afghan women receive secondary education, and their workforce participation is just 15.7 percent. We have a lot of work left to do.


What would you go back and tell yourself as a young student after all you have learned in life and the tech world?


It’s very important that you believe in yourself and have faith in the work you’re doing. It doesn’t matter where you are, what you have or what you don’t have – you should never be afraid to do what you believe in. And if you’re criticized, embrace the critics because they make you stronger.