How Code to Inspire is harnessing the power of tech to set free young Afghan women from their shackled livesRakhi Chakraborty
Fereshteh Forough began life as a refugee. Her parents migrated to Iran during the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, and she was born there. After completing high school in Iran and one year after the Taliban regime collapsed, her family decided to move back to Afghanistan. “Life as a refugee was hard,” says Fereshteh. Access to education, social services and a myriad other services are very difficult. Despite these daily deprivations, my parents sacrificed a great deal to provide for us eight children and made sure we understood the value of a good education.”
Spouting the benefits of education comes easy to those of us privileged enough to take it for granted. But its true value is realised by those who have to fight for this basic right and it’s mostly them who decide to pay it forward. Fereshteh founded Code to Inspire, a coding school – the first of its kind in Afghanistan – to enable women to take control of their own lives.
The number of women in the tech industry, in any part of the world, is pitiable. In Afghanistan, where 85 per cent of women are illiterate, it is practically a non-entity. But for Fereshteh, the reasons for providing highly specialised technological education to women are more complex than simply wanting to right this balance.
She says, “This is a country that is very conservative about women’s education and employment. The majority of families prefer that their daughters become teachers. It’s a well-respected job for women in society because you get paid and you only deal with women. Most of the students who graduate from the computer science stream also end up choosing this profession. Unfortunately, opportunities don’t exist where they can teach what they’ve learnt – that is programming. They might get jobs where they teach the basic aspects of computer education or they end up teaching maths – something in which they don’t have a lot of experience. The daily commute or travelling out of their hometown to take up more suitable jobs is also a no-go for most women.
These are the challenges women who want to make a career in IT face in Afghanistan. That’s why I wanted to start Code to Inspire – a safe and secure coding school where women not only learn to code, but also where we try and find them employment online. That way they don’t have to worry about travelling around for work or dealing with conservative elements that threaten to derail their careers before they’ve even begun. They can do all the work online and get paid online. This is the idea of Code to Inspire.”
A confounding experience
After earning her Bachelor of Computer Science, Fereshteh went to Germany for her Masters’ degree at the Technical University of Berlin. She returned to Kabul in 2010, where she began working as a professor at a prestigious university. It was a confounding experience.
“I was the first female tutor in our faculty. I remember my first day teaching when they put up on the board that there would be a female mentor to teach Java Programming. The previous teachers had been from Germany and the students could not comprehend the instructions in English. My medium of instruction was going to be in Farsi or Dari so everyone could understand,” she says.
“There was may be 200 or 250 students in the whole department. But on my first day teaching only six or seven showed up. They were only women. The guys were like, ‘It’s impossible for us to go and learn from a woman. How can we go to a class headed by a woman?’ Learning Java from a woman dealt their honour a low blow.
A couple of weeks later, the first of the guys showed up. They realised that they have a problem understanding English. I was conducting classes in their mother tongue. Day by day the numbers increased until it became a class of a 100.
People would scribble inappropriate words and insults on paper about women professors, which included me, and stick them up on walls of the University. That was discouraging. We were also receiving emails from people who were unhappy with women teachers. It was all about, ‘This is against our culture and against Islam and so on.’ But we also received a lot of support from fellow teachers and students. It takes time for people to understand that it’s better to be collaborative than to oppose something.”
Fereshteh idealises the teaching profession and is enthusiastic about the difference she can make. She says, “When I went to Germany, I was impressed with the system of open education. The environment of team work was infectious. In Afghanistan, students don’t like to raise their hand in the classroom and ask questions because the teacher doesn’t like it or there are other social barriers. Here, the atmosphere of education revolves around open learning, constant questioning and mentorship. When I went back to Afghanistan, I was determined to apply these principles in my own classroom.” But she soon ran into a wall.
“I noticed that the female students never raised their hands, even when they had questions. They were shy or afraid of being made fun of. They would wait till the class was over and then come to me individually to get their queries answered. I was puzzled because if you don’t ask your questions during class you can’t follow the lecture properly or understand what’s going on,” she explains.
Rooting around for a solution
The lack of digital literacy is a burgeoning problem in Afghanistan for everybody, but girls are at a particular disadvantage. “Most girls in Afghanistan have little means to access the Internet. Going to Internet cafes is not an option for two reasons: they are dominated by men who heckle the girls out of there. Most families wouldn’t allow their daughters to go to a public Internet café in the first place. And they are very expensive. An hour costs a dollar or two. A family can feed itself for a day with that amount,” Fereshteh explains.
Soon, it became apparent to her that starting up was the only solution to help women overcome these obstacles. She says, “If you want to be an entrepreneur and launch your own startup in Afghanistan, a field I’ve had first-hand experience in, leave aside the fact that it is a male dominated market, the patriarchal norms rear their heads at every turn. Women going and talking to prospective customers – most of whom are men – is daunting and murky. Plus, most of them reply with statements like, “We don’t think you women can maintain a website or run a business.”
As of December 2014, nearly 90 per cent of Afghan residential areas are now under telecommunication and information technology coverage. Eight per cent of the population has access to Internet services and 85 per cent use the cell phone. The potential job market in the digital sector is tremendous. Fereshteh’s vision is that with the specialised training Code to Inspire is providing, and the flexible nature computer tasks afford, her student’s unparalleled autonomy over their work almost ensures a kind of monopoly in this job market because she feels guys are not getting half as good a coding education as the girls are.
Fereshteh says, “When introducing a brand new idea anywhere, not just in a closed society like Afghanistan, some resistance is inevitable. We’ve faced our fair share. I’ve been clear from the beginning that we will do our work with Code to Inspire while respecting the traditions of Afghanistan. We don’t want to make trouble for our girls. That’s why we are aiming to be as transparent about our work as possible and focus purely on the technology part of it. That way, we hope we won’t be kicking any hornet’s nests.”
Her perspective is understandable. But given the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan in the recent past, how would any progressive change be sustainable unless it smashed some traditions to the ground?
Fereshteh is happy to take things slow because she is confident that the power of money will win over even the harshest critics of women’s liberation. “For people who stand against initiatives like this, I have realised that their viewpoint changes once their ignorance erodes. Strictly conservative families who wouldn’t allow their daughters to come to a place like Code to Inspire change their minds once they see how much earning power the daughter gains with a tech education,” she offers.
Introducing Bitcoin in Afghanistan
Fereshteh is the first person to have introduced Bitcoin in Afghanistan. And it is a mode of payment she is determined to stick to despite the hurdles it poses. She says, “Using Bitcoin, or any crypto currency for that matter, in Afghanistan is complicated because it’s not about the technology itself. It’s more about the infrastructure in the country. In the beginning, the girls were suspicious about how it was possible to have money over the Internet. Once we taught them to create wallets and use the currency, they were happy because they were the only ones who knew they had money. This gave them autonomy and power they hadn’t experienced before.”
But hurdles it does pose. Fereshteh explains, “Most houses here don’t have shipping and billing address provisions. So our girls couldn’t find outlets where they could spend their Bitcoin money. Unless you want to buy digital copies of magazines or software, there weren’t many options for them. The other challenge was exchanging Bitcoin with Afghan Afghani. But there isn’t any exchange platform that supports Afghani. So we exchange the Bitcoin to Afghani for them.
The idea behind Bitcoin is fantastic. Our girls love it. It enables a degree of liberation they haven’t experienced before. But it’s difficult to work within Afghanistan. If people don’t see cash at the end, it’s difficult for them to embrace it.
We plan to counteract this through education. Afghans had the same attitude towards the Internet once. When they came to know more about its potential, their views changed. What we don’t know scares us. We are thinking and trying different options. It will take time, naturally. But the vision is long-term and we are moving in the right direction.”
The seed fund for Code to Inspire was raised through a successful crowdfunding campaign. The first lab operational in Herat, where girls from different financial backgrounds, from the ages of 15 to 25 learn to code, is a safe haven. The plans to open more such labs in other cities are underway. Code to Inspire has the financial backing of several big names from the corporate world. Fereshteh is currently based in New York City where the head offices of Code to Inspire are based.
“There is always a way to make your idea happen. Work for it.”