Images of women coming out of Afghanistan often depict them clad in head-to-toe burqas, trailing behind male relatives or huddled together. It is an image that, in many cases, alienates viewers from the flesh-and-blood women who remain out of sight, and out of mind. But that is hardly the image that Fereshteh Forough, founder and CEO of Code to Inspire (CTI), a coding center for women in Herat, conveys, and it is certainly not the reality that she and her colleagues on the ground live day-to-day.

Forough established Code to Inspire in 2015 as a safe space for women to get an education and begin creating portfolios and resumes that would allow them to work in an industry that continues to have a glass ceiling for women. Since then, the center has served 150 women. Crucially, Code to Inspire aims to equip them with the skills they need to begin working remotely as freelancers online, allowing them to overcome some of the less traversable barriers of Afghan society.

Even though more than 15 years have passed since the fall of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan still face numerous challenges, from safety and security to financial limitations that often make it difficult for women to travel outside of their hometowns. According to the World Bank, women made up just 19 percent of the work force in Afghanistan in 2017 – up from 10 percent in 2010.

By empowering women to become “digital citizens” and giving them the skills they need to work remotely, Forough believes that she is giving them a way out and paving the way for a technically-skilled and entrepreneurial class of women.

According to CTI’s website, “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.”

In 2015, Code to Inspire raised $22,000 through an IndieGogo campaign to begin its operations. It also received donations from Github, Malala Fund, GooglersGive, BitFury, as well as 20 laptops from Overstock. Today, Code to Inspire offers Full-Stack and Web Development classes, Mobile Application, Game Development (Unity), and Graphic Design classes to women in the Afghan City of Herat.

Participants doing group work at Code to Inspire. Courtesy of Code to Inspire.

Participants doing group work at Code to Inspire. Courtesy of Code to Inspire.

A Code To Inspire

Born a refugee in Iran during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Forough believes that her personal history has a lot to do with her interest in helping girls in Afghanistan become coders. “A lot of issues in my life inspired me to think about establishing Code to Inspire as the very first coding school for girls in Afghanistan. Being born as a refugee, you face a lot of challenges, including being deprived of the basic human right of education,” she tells progrss.

Forough, who graduated from high school in Iran, moved back to Afghanistan with her family in 2002 – just one year after the collapse of the Taliban regime. In Afghanistan, she studied computer science in her native City of Herat, before going to Germany to do her Masters in Computer Science at the Technical University of Berlin (TUB).

According to Forough, women face many challenges in technical fields in Afghanistan. She explains that, because studying computer science requires participants to do group work and activities, the absence of safe spaces for women means that they often cannot go the extra mile to become professionals.

24-year-old software engineer Akita Azimi is a lecturer at the Computer Science Faculty at Herat University and mentor at Code to Inspire, and she agrees that one of the biggest challenges that female Computer Science students have in Afghanistan is that they often cannot code. She explains that this makes it difficult for them to find jobs in the industry, which leads to them becoming jobless or forces them to stay at home.

“Code to Inspire is a second chance for girls that can make their future, [and it] makes me [feel good] that via Code to Inspire I can help them. So definitely I can say YES that we are trying to bring golden changes and opportunities to girls’ [lives] and that is a big difference,” says Azimi. She adds that, one of the things that indicate that she has succeeded is seeing her students able to make their own applications, games, and web applications, and seeing them being sought out by large companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

For Forough, the sky is the limit when it comes to inspiring and empowering women to work in a traditionally male-dominated field. She explains that, compared to other cities, Herat has better infrastructure and security to support their coding school, putting them at an advantage.

“The next step for CTI is to expand to other cities in Afghanistan and to create a strong network of women in technology, where they can support each other and provide opportunities for other women. Going a step further, I would like to see CTI in other regions such as Central Asia and South Asian Countries that have similar situation as us,” she tells progrss.