The Sustainable MBA

Empowering Afghan women to code, teach, learn and inspire

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The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

There are 3.6 million female students in Afghanistan today, compared to zero in 2001. However, social limitations for women still exist — women make up only 16 percent of the current Afghan labor force.

Fereshteh Forough, founder and president of Code to Inspire (CTI), the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan, has a passion. She wants to empower young Afghan women by hitching their economic and social advancement to the country’s growing tech industry. For businesses and governments strive to align with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Code to Inspire is an organization to watch, as it encompasses the aims of Goal 4 (inclusive education) and Goal 5 (gender equality).

Bard MBA in Sustainability student Esra Elshafey spoke with Forough to discuss how CTI educates Afghan women with in-demand programming skills, empowers them to add unique value to their communities and inspires them to strive for financial and social independence.

Esra Elshafey: What is your background, and what was the inspiration for Code to Inspire?

Fereshteh Forough, founder and president of Code to Inspire.Fereshteh Forough: I was born as a refugee in Iran during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and got my high school degree in Iran. In 2002, one year after the Taliban regime collapsed, my family and I moved back to our home city of Herat, Afghanistan. I received my bachelor’s in computer science in Afghanistan. Next, I went to Germany for my master’s in computer science from the Technical University of Berlin. Then, I taught as a computer science professor in Afghanistan for three years.

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. That definitely made me think about how I could help everyone, especially the girls in Afghanistan, to access education.

You also face challenges as a female student in a technical field. There are cultural barriers for women [in Afghanistan]. If they study computer science, they need to practice and to do group work and activities, and there is a lack of safe space for girls to go to for extra studying, networking and social activities. Many families cannot afford extracurricular activities for girls, like paying for further classes. I established Code to Inspire as safe place for girls to get an education and create portfolios and resumes so they can start working online.

Elshafey: What will coding enable Afghan girls and women to do?

Forough: During the Taliban regime, there were only 900,000 students going to school in Afghanistan, and none of them were girls. There were zero women in the workforce. We made a lot of improvements after the Taliban collapsed and now there are about 9 million students going to school every day; 4.2 million of them are girls. There is huge progress, especially for women’s education in Afghanistan.

Coding is like a language. You use language to communicate with each other, so coding can be a communication tool. It can also empower you be more creative and innovative.

Many challenges can be overcome with coding. Many families will not allow their daughters to travel by themselves to other cities to find a job. It is not part of our culture to go to live in other cities by yourself, so women are very limited to their hometowns and mobility is a big issue.

If you know how to code, then with internet access and a computer, you can work online. So coding allows you to tackle the issue of travel and social restriction. And once the girls are bringing income to their families through coding, they can be financially independent, which also helps them take part in the decision-making process of the community.

Elshafey: How do you deal with the pushback against women in education in Afghanistan?

Forough: Women’s education and empowerment is a very sensitive topic in Afghanistan because there are still a lot of people who are extremist or who are against women’s education. They see it as a threat, and not as a way to help the community.

In a traditionally male-dominated country like Afghanistan where women face barriers in the education sector, it is important to establish a credible and trustworthy relationship with parents and community. Once you have their support, they will become your advocate and help you grow your cause. 

At Code to Inspire, we try to be engaged with the girl’s families and establish good relationships with them so they can be our advocate and support. We involve the girl’s parents by sending thank-you letters. If we see that a student is absent, we call the parents to let them know and to ask why.

There is a lot of pushback on social media about whether women should learn coding. We not only teach our girls certain skills, but we also want to bring a social impact to the community. By helping the girls find specific problems in the community and come up with mobile applications or other solutions that could solve them, it shows people that providing opportunities for women is important so they can give back. There is a value not only for the girls, but also for the community.

Elshafey: How do you balance culture and education in that environment?

Forough: We try to keep the balance between technology, education and family. By providing a safe and secure environment and a space only for girls, we want parents to feel comfortable when they send their daughters to our coding school. So not only do the families feel good about this, but the girls also are in an environment in which they can learn and feel relaxed and engaged.

Elshafey: What is the key to promoting a more sustainable environment of success for women around the world?

Forough: Women should support each other. In Afghanistan, there are few role models for the girls in the technology sector, so creating a network of women professionals who can be a role model for younger girls, creating a community of women who can support each other, creating opportunities for each other and mentor one another will go a long way toward empowerment.

Elshafey: Where do you see the future of Code to Inspire? 

Forough: In the near future, we would love to expand our coding school to other cities in Afghanistan. We also want to create a strong professional network of women in IT who can support and help each other. Longer-term, I would like to replicate the model to the Middle East, Africa and countries that have the same issues for women accessing education and technology.