Fereshteh Forough, the founder and CEO of Code to Inspire, says she knows from experience how transformative it can be to simply receive resources or an opportunity if you're underprivileged. Especially if that opportunity is education.
Forough was born a refugee in Iran to parents fleeing Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the early 80s. As a child refugee, Forough says that aside from discrimination and other obstacles she faced growing up, accessing education was a continuous, uphill battle.
"As a refugee, you have to show certain papers to the school in Iran so they let you go to school," she says. "The fear of whether or not I would be able to go to school was always with me."
But Forough was fortunate. They accepted her papers, and she was able to finish high school in Iran. In 2002, one year after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, her family returned home to Herat. There, Forough received her bachelor's in computer science, and then traveled to the Technical University of Berlin in Germany to work toward and receive her master's degree as well.
Forough returned home once more to teach computer science, but quickly saw issues with how the girls in the class were given opportunities to learn.
"The fear of whether or not I would be able to go to school was always with me"
"I saw that my female students were still in the same situation I had been in growing up with technology. It led me to ask how I could change the situation and give the women more opportunity and resources, so that they could use these skills and be financially independent.
"From my own experience, when I wanted to do extracurricular activities, when I wanted to go to coffee shops to use the internet, it wasn't a pleasant experience. The coffee shop had a seating place for women, but you'd be verbally harassed. You had to also play a dollar or more to use an hour of internet, which runs up a lot of money for a lot of families coming from a poor background. And in our culture, men are more mobile and have more opportunity.
"So I wanted to give women a space where they feel comfortable and confident and aren't afraid of raising their hands and asking questions. I wanted to create a place where the families who couldn't afford to send their daughters to school would do so without hesitation."
Though the seeds for this idea were planted while she taught, it would take a bit longer before Forough would bring them to fruition. In 2012, she moved to the United States and founded the Digital Citizen Fund, a non-profit that works to teach digital literacy and provide technology resources to women and girls in developing countries. Then, in November 2015, she started Code to Inspire with the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan, located in her hometown of Herat.
Code to Inspire is an after-school education program for women and girls of high school through college-age. For the high school students, the program focuses on basic coding and cultivating an interest in and excitement over technology. The college-age students take courses in more specific topics such as web development, mobile app development, and game development. In its first year, the school had 100 applicants, but was only able to take 50 due to limited resources. Its most recent class accepted 120 students. 150 students so far have learned to code through the program, and 25 have graduated entirely.
"A lot of these girls who graduate and have the skills can't find a job because there are a lot of companies who would rather hire men"
"The ultimate goal for Code to Inspire is to teach these young ladies skills so they can find employment opportunities either within the community, or online doing remote work, and they can get paid," Forough says. "The challenge is that a lot of these girls who graduate and have the skills can't find a job because there are a lot of companies who would rather hire men. They think they are more capable or have a better resume, and girls are not allowed or able to travel easily within the country because of the Taliban. But they can still generate revenue working online."
Aside from gender discrimination issues, Forough says another obstacle to girls learning to code, develop games, or get hired for those skills is simply a general lack of awareness around technology throughout the country, though she acknowledges that it's growing.
"When we were teaching the girls how to create websites and they were talking to people and telling them that they could create websites for them, a lot of people said, 'Well we're doing fine without having a website. How can this help us?'" Forough says. "Digital literacy and technical literacy is not common. And more specifically to the games industry, in Afghanistan, because there aren't any role models or companies that come to the space and create a game and encourage the community to use it, no one else aspires to do that."
To help its students overcome this, Code to Inspire actively seeks partnerships with companies, studios, and individuals both within and outside the country that are looking for contractors or freelancers to finish small projects that are a good fit for aspiring developers. And it publishes the games created by its game development students on itch.io.
"When we started the school and were thinking about what subjects we have to add, I thought gaming was something I had never seen anyone doing something in Afghanistan," Forough says. "It's a very unknown world. There are not a lot of companies. And when you see people playing games here, there are no games that relate to or look like our culture that people can play.
"But games can be educational and entertaining. They're a great way to teach the girls these skills that not a lot of people in Afghanistan know, and also use it as a tool that can raise awareness about women in technology and gaming, give them some exposure, and show them how they can use their skills."
Forough goes on to tell me a few of the stories of the games made by the women of Code to Inspire. One game, Find and Fill, was made by Khatereh Mohammadi based on the memory of a game she used to play with her brother growing up.
"Once she had created that game, she went and showed it to her family," Forough says. "And they were so surprised, especially her brother, because they had never thought the girl of the family was able to do something that a guy in the family was unable to do."
Another game, called Fight Against Opium, was made by a team of women at Code to Inspire and is based on a true story. The inspiration for the game also comes from Mohammadi, whose brother joined the fight against the Taliban in opium fields in an effort to eradicate the drug from the region. When her brother came home and told his stories of the fight, Mohammadi was inspired to create the game to raise awareness of the dangers of opium and its cultivation, as well as encourage more positive farming practices.
"They were so surprised because they had never thought the girl of the family was able to do something that a guy in the family was unable to do"
And a third game, called Afghan Hero Girl, was just released on Google Play. The title is a 2D sidescrolling platformer that features a young Afghan girl whose parents are captured by a witch. The group of students that made it wanted to create a game that included a girl who looked like them in a heroic, decision-making role so that other young women could see themselves as powerful figures.
For the future, Forough hopes to continue to grow the school in Herat with each new class, as well as open more branches of Code to Inspire throughout Afghanistan - creating a "network of women who can support each other." She also is looking beyond Afghanistan for future schools in countries where women have similar struggles.
While the program has been successful at teaching students the skills they need to successfully work on professional projects, Forough says she has had difficulty in finding partners and projects from outside the organization. It's not that people aren't interested in the idea or the cause, she says, but rather that they have a perception of Afghanistan as a country that makes them hesitate.
"When I talk to people about what we do, the majority say they had never thought there'd be something like that in Afghanistan. The first thing that comes to their mind is that it's a warzone and the women are oppressed. And when it comes to partnering for funding or employment opportunities, people get excited to help these women, but their perception of Afghanistan holds them back. We want to change that perspective.
"I would love to see companies offering online internships and mentorships, giving these girls a small project and walking them through. Without that, students don't get experience, and we need the companies to trust us and give us time and mentorship. That will open more doors for them and give them more confidence. That could be a life-changing experience for them.