Photo courtesy of Digital Citizen Fund
Despite being heralded as a new dawn, post-Taliban Afghanistan is still rife with Taliban influence and destruction, both physically and mentally. Though not ill-intentioned, President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah's coalition government is occupied trying to navigate fiscal issues as other countries withdraw and reduce their aid. Striking economic deals with China and appeasing the Taliban are top priorities on the agenda, as opposed to educative initiatives that benefit talented women and girls; the future of Afghanistan. Luckily, Afghanistan's fighting spirit is evident in its entrepreneurial and innovative women who seize every opportunity they can to empower women of all ages. Such a woman is 27-year-old tech CEO and philanthropist, Roya Mahboob, who at the mere age of 25 was named as one of TIME magazine's most influential people of 2013. In a country where only an estimated 30,000 Afghan women are entrepreneurs, mainly in agricultural and crafts industries, Mahboob has fought many odds to get to where she is today. I wanted to discover her journey from refugee to one of the most powerful and inspiring women in her nation.
Mahboob's family spent six months in Taliban-led Herat, Afghanistan, before fleeing to Iran and seeking refuge. During these six months, Mahboob's childhood radically transformed: "I wasn't allowed to go to school, I couldn't even play with friends outside my home", she lamented. The Taliban regime's focus was not only to veto anything 'un-Islamic'--which included the likes of music, TV, and books--but to strip women of happiness, freedom, and basic human rights. Windows on homes were painted black so men could not look inside at women, and women were segregated from the outside world. "As an inquisitive young girl, I wanted to discover and research the world around me", and rather than succumbing to Taliban oppression, Mahboob channeled her anger and sadness for her country into a desire to get an education, and provide greater opportunities for women than she had. "I discovered that ICT is the best way to empower women in an extremely conservative society; it connects them to the world. They can discover new information, and with online education, increase their employability."Five years of official Taliban rule might not seem like a long time, but it was enough to corrupt the previously liberal Afghan male psyche into a dangerously misogynistic one. This culture wanted to keep women in the dark as much as possible; bound to traditional roles of a housewife. Bigoted men don't even permit the women in their lives to attend middle school, resulting in an 85 percent illiteracy rate among women. Even with major technological advancement, Internet cafés are the most common way for Afghans to access the Internet. If a woman wants to check her emails or conduct research, she will be subject to harassment; conservative men shout at women for even thinking about going to a café. It's perceived as a place 'good girls' should not go to, even though men can attend as much as they want. This hypocrisy is further perpetuated by those you would not expect: "12 years ago, my cousin and I went to the first Internet café that opened in Herat, and the mere idea of young girls wanting to use computers was shocking to everyone." The owner of the café and other attendees proceeded to shout at and lambast the girls for being there. "To this day, I still feel uncomfortable in Internet cafés." If Afghanistan was ever going to change its attitude towards women, Mahboob would have to take charge and make positive changes herself.
Upon returning to Afghanistan in 2003, Mahboob sought ways to climb up the tech industry's grueling ladder. "I seized every single opportunity I could--I learned how to use a computer at the United Nations Development Program's women's center and then I attended Herat University in 2004." Six years later in 2010, along with her younger sister, Elaha, and two other colleagues, Mahboob founded Afghan Citadel Software Company, a software development company based in Herat. In 2014, only 210,000 Afghans had Internet service in their home, now more than 80 percent have registered cellphones, and 4G connectivity has expanded rapidly. Afghanistan's Internet even rivals some of its neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, Iran, and China, where major censorship is in place. The number of women in computer science faculties across Afghanistan has approximately increased by 30 percent, but there are still many barriers that women have to cross in order to get the opportunity to become digitally literate--only 30,000 women were registered university students in 2014, out of a total 154,000. Mahboob is leading Afghanistan's march towards a fully technologically advanced nation, and she's not leaving any woman behind: "My goal [for Afghan Citadel] was to create jobs for women in Afghanistan's growing tech market", and she has rather impressively followed through on this goal. Mahboob and other board members employ positive discrimination when searching for new employees, resulting in women making up an incredible 70 percent of their workforce. Compare that to the average of 26 percent in Silicon Valley, and you realize that Mahboob not only has the power to set a precedent nationally, but globally.
Mahboob recognized that there must be a lot of untapped potential in Afghanistan's uneducated and illiterate females, and with the right education, she could empower them to achieve dreams they didn't know they could have. When she saw the sheer power social media possessed--how it benefitted her personal life and business--she wanted to enable women, otherwise confined to their homes, to communicate with the outside world and create a digital voice for them. "When you're a digital citizen, a passport isn't required to have access to an empowered place. There's no discrimination and gender issues." She kickstarted her philanthropy by investing Afghan Citadel's revenue to give back to the communities that have served her so well. The aim isn't necessarily to train these women up for tech careers, but to teach them how to use tech to benefit them. Mahboob firmly believes in the power of the arts, both as a creative outlet for women to heal and as a viable career; "We want women to be anything they want: writers, filmmakers, or website designers."
Equipped with a desire to give more women the opportunity to succeed, Mahboob founded Digital Citizen Fund--a nonprofit dedicated to the education of Afghan girls and women in digital literacy--along with fellow Afghan tech CEO, Fereshteh Forough, and Italian businessman, Francesco Rulli. Starting in Herat, they've built 13 IT training centers across Afghanistan and other developing countries. DCF currently educates over 55,000 women wishing to become technologically proficient. For these young girls in their formative years, who are otherwise oppressed in society, the Internet symbolizes a world of opportunity. Just under 8,000 women have graduated from DCF's training programs with greater prospects of employment in Afghanistan's growing IT sector. Some have gone onto university to study engineering, computer science and other technology-related subjects. But others have harvested their newfound skills to benefit their career goals--one graduate, Farzaneh Popal, used the training she received in social media strategy to promote her fashion business.The ride hasn't been all smooth-sailing though; "Of course, we faced problems that most women face when trying to achieve something in a male-dominated world". The pervasive Taliban-created cultural problems still prevent women from leading normal lives, and puts them at risk of physical and verbal abuse from their family. DCF does not seek to encourage women to disobey their conservative family's wishes for the sake of it, but they want to try and make apprehensive families see that with the right education and training, their daughters are capable of anything. Husbands, fathers and brothers have been considerably vocal about their dislike for the nonprofit, but Mahboob says that having men on her team aids in easing nerves. "Many of the families didn't want their daughters to learn about computers, but after their daughters began to prove how this training can help their families and family businesses, they become much more accepting." Especially considering work on the computer can be done from home, in a safe environment, which makes the notion more appealing and culturally sound.Finance has been a big factor in hindering DCF's expansion--Mahboob has not received a single pence of government funding. Mahboob doesn't have any plans to give in though; she has mounds of ambition and is optimistic for the respective futures of her business and her nonprofit. DCF has committed itself to building 13 more IT centers across Afghanistan, and expanding internationally to Iraq and Syria: "We want to be able to train an additional 25,000 female students within the next five years." Afghan Citadel is launching a new learning management system (LMS) called EdyEdy-Educate yourself, which bridges the gap between education and vocational training, so women can develop the skills they need for specific careers. I was astonished by the incredible things Mahboob had achieved, especially at such a young age and under awfully difficult conditions--I wanted to know what exactly motivates her to keep going--how is she able to stay so positive? "I never give up; every single one of my failures is an important life lesson."