Unlocking the code: teaching girls in Afghanistan coding

Fereshteh Forough is founder of Code to Inspire, the first all-female coding school in Afghanistan. Ambition has taken her from refugee to CEO

Fereshteh Forough was born as an Afghan refugee in Iran, one of eight children. A year after the fall of the Taliban, she moved to Afghanistan where she studied computer science, and later Berlin where she earned a master’s degree. Then she founded Code to Inspire, the first all-female coding school in Afghanistan. By teaching girls in-demand programming skills, she hopes to help them be independent.

— How did your experience as a refugee shape you?

In Iran, I got the impression that people think refugees have come to take your job and to steal opportunities out from under you. On the other hand, I learned that great things can start with empty hands. You learn to get the most out of the least, the value of adaptation and to appreciate even small opportunities.

— How hard was it for you to access education in Iran?

Being treated as an unwanted guest is not a pleasant experience. I don’t remember how many times the schools rejected my siblings and I, but I do remember how many times my father knocked on each office’s door to get the documents allowing us to attend school. My father was always very supportive of us pursuing education and helped us with our homework. My mother learned to make dresses which she sold to buy us school supplies.

A childhood photo of Fereshteh and her family

— What was it like returning to Afghanistan?

We moved to Herat in 2002, packing everything in a big truck. I was very unhappy to move from a place where I had so many friends and memories to one I only knew through my mother’s photo al-bum and as a war zone on TV.

I remember it was a very windy day with dust in the air, and that there weren’t many trees. It took us hours to get to the city. By the time we were close, it was getting dark. Old lanterns hung outside the shops. At the new house, we got our water from a well. We only had electricity for three hours each day.

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— Did you experience a culture shock travelling to Berlin, and beyond since?

I love Berlin. It is a very diverse city. I like to travel and learn about people and new cultures. People from certain countries or religions face discrimination – extra check-in time at airports for example – but I’m used to it now. I won’t let my gender and ethnic background set me back.

— Why did you set up Code to Inspire?

Most of the time in Afghanistan, even if a female student graduated from a computer science course, she wouldn’t have been able to find a job in the field. If women are offered jobs outside of their hometown, the majority of families wouldn’t let them leave. Young women can’t travel by ground even with a male companion. Decades of war, internal conflicts and political instability in Afghanistan have destroyed the country’s basic social service mechanisms.

We opened the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan in 2015. We run free, after-school programmes: safe places where girls can enjoy learning.

You learn to get the most out of the least, the value of adaptation and to appreciate even small opportunities

— What challenges and obstacles have you had to overcome in doing so?

It has been no easy feat! Preparing the right documents to operate as a non-profit organisation and to raise the necessary funds for the coding school were huge tasks.

But I am persistent and energised. It gives me hope to know that 50 girls in Afghanistan are learning and growing every day because of Code to Inspire.

Fereshteh Forough, image: Alena Soboleva

— What do you love about technology?

Coding is a language like any other, and a great tool for communicating. I love the creativity and problem-solving aspect. Knowledge is power. Technology – its power and connectivity – has helped make my dream come true.

— What are you most proud of in your life?

Students who have never before touched a computer or used the internet are now able to make webpages and code because of us. Every day when I wake up, I check Twitter to see inspiring messages from students about what they’ve achieved. Our students are bold, courageous and inspiring. They are agents of change, in a country where women have been deprived for decades.

Destruction is easy, construction is difficult, so we have a lot of work left to do

— What makes you feel positive about the future?

During the Taliban regime, fewer than a million students were enrolled in schools, and no women. Today, nearly seven million children are enrolled in schools: around 37 per cent of them girls. There are hundreds of public and private universities. A study by Kabul University found that 40 per cent of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] students are women.

As of 2014, 90 per cent of residential areas in Afghanistan have telecommunication and information coverage. There are now 23.2 million mobile phone users in the country. In total, 28 per cent of the seats in parliament are held by women.

These numbers show that progress is being made in Afghanistan. Destruction is easy, construction is difficult, so we have a lot of work left to do, but I am hopeful of a peaceful, bright future for Afghanistan.

Featured image: Markus Spiske