On technology and cultural change

Fereshteh Forough: on technology and cultural change

Originally posted on Woman ChangeMAKER; Interview by Jessie Bauters

Peace is Loud speaker Fereshteh Forough – founder and CEO of Code to Inspire – is bringing hope, opportunity and empowerment to women and girls in Afghanistan, changing cultural norms along the way. She shares with Woman ChangeMAKER her efforts to educate female students in her homeland, improving their technical literacy and employment prospects, and breaking down societal barriers. 

WCM: In your vision to bring STEM education to Afghanistan, the first barrier you face is the one that stands in the way of education itself. What is the state of education in your country?

FF: It’s actually improved in the past several years. During the Taliban’s rule, which ended in 2001, less than a million students were enrolled in schools. Today, we have more than 9 million enrolled, including 3.6 million girls. There are 135 public and private universities in the country with 250,000 students enrolled – a 2014 Kabul University study found that 40 percent of STEM students are females, and that percentage is probably higher, now.

But 85 percent of women in Afghanistan have no 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 long way to go.

WCM: While our readers in many countries are familiar with the so-called gender gap, particularly in the context of STEM courses and careers, the culture of Afghanistan excludes women from so much more than science, technology, engineering and math. How does that affect your efforts to teach women to code?

FF: Yes, it’s still very difficult for women to get a job in Afghanistan, regardless of their field. Computer science and technology are particularly limiting for women because these careers are seen as a man’s work – something that women aren’t capable of doing. That attitude pushes women aside and holds them back.

For many girls, it’s hard to continue any education past elementary school or high school because they are often forced to marry – which, of course, affects their ability to join the workforce. Even if a woman graduates with a computer science degree, for example, those jobs aren’t available to her for a couple of reasons, the first being mobility.

Traditionally, most girls and women aren’t allowed to travel without a male companion. So even if they find a job opportunity, if it’s outside their hometown, women aren’t able to commute to work because of security and safety concerns.

The other reason is the perception that coding is for men. A woman with a computer science degree is often not considered for these jobs. In my experience as an entrepreneur, if you approach a man and say that you can do what he needs with an app or a website, he doesn’t trust your ability because you’re a woman.

That’s why, at best, so often women become teachers. That’s what society expects. It’s a deeply-held cultural convention.

WCM: How can Code to Inspire – the coding school you founded in your hometown – begin to change that culture?

FF: Code to Inspire is the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan. When we started recruiting girls in Herat in January 2015, we wanted to show them their value and empower them to break down traditional barriers. Since then, we’ve been working to expand in Herat, encouraging more female students to pursue careers in technology.

Computer science students in Herat, Afghanistan, build virtual games during the first Code to Inspire CodeFest for Women in March 2016.

Computer science students in Herat, Afghanistan, build virtual games during the first Code to Inspire CodeFest for Women in March 2016.

But we can’t stop at education. Because of travel barriers to travel, we provide safe and secure opportunities for them to use our equipment. We find companies and organizations that offer full- and part-time remote jobs and internships. When all you need is a computer and the Internet to do a job, women don’t have to worry about safety concerns of travel. They work from our centers in their hometowns.

WCM: That sounds like a promising beginning to changing outdated and restrictive cultural perceptions.

FF: Yes, because in Afghanistan, so much depends on word-of-mouth. When members of a community begin to trust a program like ours, you’re on the right track. So we’re trying to gain trust, community by community.

Education and women’s empowerment are sensitive topics in Afghanistan. You have to consider culture and tradition alongside modern technology. We’ve found that families are happy to send their daughters to a place that’s only for girls…and if she’s gaining useful skills there, families will begin to talk about that with other families. The more our goodwill grows, the more girls will join the program.

WCM: On your own professional path, you’ve come up against attitudes that women aren’t meant to do certain jobs. How did you overcome those stereotypes as an entrepreneur in the technology field?

Code to Inspire participants practice coding using HTML and CSS at Herat headquarters.

Code to Inspire participants practice coding using HTML and CSS at Herat headquarters.

FF: When my family moved back to Afghanistan in 2002, I pursued a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Herat University. It was a year after the Taliban collapsed, which was very early in the education evolution of Afghanistan. After earning a master’s degree in Berlin, Germany, I came back to Herat to teach.

During my time as a student, a mentor and a professor, I experienced a lot of challenges and difficulties. Men were not happy having a woman as a mentor or a teacher. They didn’t want to ask questions or ask for my help. And I saw female students who weren’t participating and weren’t raising their hands because they felt embarrassed. Experiencing it first-hand, and seeing it happening to other women, are what led me to do something to help women in technology.

WCM: Who, or what else, most inspired you to develop a career for yourself that’s well beyond the cultural norms for women in your country?

FF: My mother. I was born as a refugee in Iran, when the Soviets were in power in Afghanistan. With eight children to look after, my mother learned how to make dresses which she sold for school supplies.

She always emphasized education and wanted us 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.

WCM: Nearly a year and a half into your journey with Code to Inspire, what are your goals for the organization?

FF: We’re very young right now. We have a team of five computer scientists teaching in Afghanistan, and I’m in New York seeking more partners for the coding school. I talk to a lot of technology companies and organizations that have advocated for women in STEM in the United States, trying to find ways we can work together to design curricula or consult on other aspects of Code to Inspire.

Fereshteh Forough founded the first coding school for women and girls in Afghanistan.

Fereshteh Forough founded the first coding school for women and girls in Afghanistan.

I’m also trying to increase awareness about the positive impact of our work. People in the United States hear stories about destruction and violence in Afghanistan, but I want them to hear the good stories about girls learning to code.

Ultimately, I would love for us to be a voice for women and education in Afghanistan. It’s so important for the future of Afghanistan – the more educated women we have, the more they will influence the next generation and send their own children to school. In turn, that leads to more sustainable families, equality…and peace.

As women earn incomes and support their families, their communities will gradually realize the value of women working. That man who was abusing his wife or daughter at home will see her using her skills to help pay for food or shelter, and he may begin to see her – and treat her – differently.

WCM: As you continue this difficult and important work, what drives you?

FF: I think 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 start anything you believe in. And if you’re criticized, embrace the critics because they make you stronger.

You have to create your own opportunities. Don’t wait for them to come to you.

Fereshteh Forough was a 2013 TEDTalk speaker on digital literacy and communication without borders. She’s also a founding member of the Women’s Annex Foundation and an advocate of using Bitcoin, initiating its use in Afghanistan. 

Learn more about hosting Feresheteh at your next event.