Grace Hopper Conference Shines Light on Coding School for Afghan Girls

Houston— The tech industry can be difficult for women and under-represented minorities.

For Fereshteh Forough, the degree of difficulty in recruiting women to the field is greater still. And so are the stakes. “There are general challenges, and there are Afghanistan challenges,” she said.

Forough is the founder of Code to Inspire, a coding academy aimed at high school- and college-aged women. I first met her in four years ago in Herat, Afghanistan, and we talked recently following her appearance at a panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology. The conference, named for the computer science pioneer and former U.S. Navy rear admiral, focuses on supporting women in technology and brought about 15,000 people to Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center a few weeks ago.

“We have students that have never touched a computer, never worked on the Internet,” Forough said. In a culture that frowns on women working outside the home, she said it can be difficult to convince her students they are even capable of learning programming.

“Their ideas are being buried because they think they can’t do anything,” she said.

Slowly, though, that message is changing. So far, the year-old Code to Inspire, which is located in Herat—Afghanistan’s third largest city located close to the western borders with Iran and Turkmenistan—has enrolled 50 female students: The high school kids are learning front-end website development like WordPress; the college students have taken computer science courses and are learning more sophisticated coding languages.

Forough told her story as part of a conference panel on using technology to empower women and girls. It’s a story that rings very true for her own life.

I first met Forough four years ago during reporting trips I took to Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Herat. I was a foreign correspondent based in Dubai and was writing about her former schoolmate and colleague, Roya Mahboob, who had founded her own software development company. At the time, she had also started Women’s Annex, a program offering computer-training courses for young girls in Afghan schools.

Both women were refugees and grew up in Iran, and regular schooling was difficult. By 2003, they both had returned to Afghanistan and graduated from Herat University with computer science degrees. Forough obtained a master’s degree in computer science at the Technical University in Berlin, and then returned to Herat to teach programming courses at her alma mater.

“We got a lot of backlash from male classmates because they didn’t like it,” she recalled. “The guys didn’t want to come to a woman’s class. Only seven out of 200 people showed up. After two months, the guys started coming.” She taught for three years.

In 2012, Forough moved to New York to head up Women’s Annex beachhead there but, two years ago, decided to launch Code to Inspire. An Indiegogo campaign last year raised $22,000, which went to buying computers and other equipment.

A year in, and Code to Inspire is trying to connect college-aged students with internships at companies that hire outsourced labor to do mobile development, website design, and other jobs. She hopes those internships will lead to full-time jobs and change perceptions of what Afghans, and especially Afghan women, are capable of. “We have a job-driven curriculum,” she says.

Code to Inspire creates “safe space” for the students to learn, she said. Providing the students with a computer, Internet service, and the technology skills to use them, enables the students to work, and get paid, online, giving them opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have in a society that usually forbids women from working outside of the home, living alone, or mixing with unrelated men. “With enough learning, we can boost their self-esteem and raise their voices,” she said.

In this first class of students, 20 percent have dropped out. “If 80 percent can graduate from our coding school, that’s success,” she said. “We’ve changed perspectives about being a woman in a coding space.”

Forough said the hardest thing about running Code to Inspire is that since she’s based in New York, she does it remotely. (She hopes her immigration status will soon change to allow her to travel back and forth to Afghanistan.) While teachers at the school focus on the day-to-day with students, Forrough is fundraising: $25,000 from the Google Rise award, and other grants from Github, the Malala Fund, and PWC.

“Once families know they can bring money in, they are of value, it helps to reduce violence against them,” Forough said. “[Hiring companies] help us overcome this social barrier.”

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