School empowers women in Afghanistan by teaching them how to code

Students become advocates for change through education and technology

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Fereshteh Forough reminds you about all the wonderful things technology can make happen. This is a story about a coding boot camp doing things and enabling human beings in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Women in Afghanistan have bleak prospects for all the reasons you might imagine, though the odds they face probably are worse than you imagine. About seven out of eight women have no formal education and are illiterate. Only about one out of eight participate in the labor force.

Related: Dealing with the gender gap in cybersecurity

The very notion of teaching girls, let alone helping them get a job, is controversial. It’s hard to travel safely to work. It’s nearly impossible to take a job in a city away from family—women don’t move in with roommates. It’s even hard to accept payment without access to traditional bank accounts.

Internet eases restrictions

The internet solves many of these problems neatly. In fact, you might imagine it was invented for this very situation. It was just waiting for Fereshteh Forough to make the connection. After all, women there are much more likely to have internet access, or even a mobile phone, than access to a bank account. (See CodetoInspire.org for sourcing on these data points.)

About a year ago, Forough opened Code to Inspire, a women-only school in Herat, Afghanistan, that teaches computer programming to students 15 to 25 years old. The women can work safely and anonymously at home—hiding their gender, if they have to. They can work for international firms, getting higher than local pay rates. And they can get paid online, potentially via a virtual currency like Bitcoin.

I met Forough at a Bitcoin event last year, which led to me attending Code to Inspire’s first graduation celebration earlier this month, and it was a treat. An inspiring treat.

Fereshteh Forough, Code to Inspire founder
Fereshteh Forough, Code to Inspire founder

Forough is from Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan. It’s in the west, near the Iran border, and while it is relatively safe, there are still plenty of security concerns. A fatal attack on Western tourists this summer was a reminder that overland trips to Herat are still perilous.

Herat is far less dangerous now than when Forough was a little girl and her family fled to a refugee camp in Iran. When she returned to Herat after the fall of the Taliban, she faced suspicion over the Iranian accent she had developed. Still, she blazed a trail by earning a computer science degree from Herat University and, later, a master’s degree in Germany.

Women traditionally pointed toward ‘safer’ careers

She returned home again to teach and found a mountain of issues facing young Afghan women who wished to break into the tech world. Even those who made their way into her classes were extremely reluctant to talk.

“Women in Afghanistan are facing a lot of challenges. Safety and security is one of them,” Forough told me. “So a majority of families prefer their daughter become a teacher … because you only deal with women.”

Forough decided she wanted to intervene even earlier in women’s lives, so she created the nonprofit Code to Inspire. The school teaches girls as young as 15 simple skills like setting up social media, using WordPress or designing web pages, helping them gain confidence. More experienced students learn everything from JavaScript to mobile video game design.

The small classroom in Herat is filled with laptops thanks in part to an online funding campaign.

It opened last year and, so far, has trained 40 young women. The school is free, but it has a competitive application process.

“What we try to do is provide a very safe and secure educational environment. … The girls, they come, feel secure, and they get an education,” she said. “The main purpose is we try to find jobs for them online. So they get paid online, and they work online without the fear of any security and family concerns.”

Obstacles to getting paid

Challenges abound. Not everyone is happy Forough is teaching young women to support themselves. The electricity goes out occasionally, and the school must run on generator power. It’s still premature to pay students in Bitcoin, as merchants in Herat don’t accept it, and it’s nearly impossible for the women to receive packages ordered online.

“For the start, we are going to receive their payments in our bank account in New York City and then transfer to our … account to Afghanistan and pay them in person,” Forough said. “There are many challenges for Bitcoin … there is no exchange in Afghanistan, and also they can’t purchase tangible materials as shipping addresses are not working in Afghanistan properly.”

Still, Forough and crew are working on educating class No. 2, which they hope will exceed 100 students. Proceeds from the graduation celebration, which cost $50 to attend, will pay for three full months of school operations, said Benjamin Dubow, Code to Inspire secretary. (Dubow works at Google.)

Effort gains some momentum

The effort is small, but growing and recognized by the Afghani government. Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah Mohib attended the event.

I asked Forough what she wanted Americans to know about her students. Here is what she said, in her own words.

“I would like not only Americans but the whole world to know that the spirit of women in Afghanistan is they are facing a lot of challenges but … every morning when they wake up they are stronger to chase their dreams,” Forough said. “They face discrimination in access to education. There are a lot of girls being prevented from going to school. There are a lot of security reasons, bombings, in Afghan that are happening. But you know all these girls when they wake up in the morning they really want to go after their dream. They really want to give back to the community. So I want to say that there are a lot of good stories about Afghanistan that have never been heard.”

To learn more about Code to Inspire, visit the nonprofit organization’s website. If you’re interested in hiring one of the students for a freelance project, send an email to info@codetoinspire.org.

More stories about women in cybersecurity:
Help wanted: More women in cybersecurity jobs
Unfilled jobs are the biggest threat to cybersecurity
Scholarships aimed at closing cybersecurity talent gap