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Afghan girls learn, code ‘underground’ to bypass Taliban curbs

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Zainab Muhammadi, who lives in Herat, Afghanistan, reminisces about hanging out with her classmates in the canteen after coding class. She now attends hidden internet lessons every day.

After the Taliban took control of the country in August, her school was forced to close. Muhammadi, on the other hand, was not deterred from learning.

“There are threats and dangers to girls like me. If the Taliban get to know … they might punish me severely. They might even stone me to death,” said Muhammadi, who requested to use a pseudonym to protect her identity.

“But I have not lost hope or my aspirations. I am determined to continue studying,” the 25-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a video call.

Despite the Taliban’s closure of their schools, she is one of hundreds of Afghan girls and women who are continuing to learn – some online and others in secret improvised classrooms.

Fereshteh Forough, the CEO and founder of Code to Inspire (CTI), Afghanistan’s first all-female coding college, set up encrypted virtual classrooms, uploaded course information to the internet, and provided computers and internet packages to roughly 100 of her pupils, including Muhammadi.

In September, the government said that older males, as well as all primary-age children, could return to school, but that older girls, roughly aged 12 to 18, should remain at home until conditions permitted their return.

The Taliban, who forbade girls from attending school during their previous rule nearly 20 years ago, has vowed to allow them to attend in order to demonstrate to the world that they have evolved.

According to a senior UN official who met with the Taliban earlier this month, the administration is working on a framework that will be released before the end of the year.

According to UNICEF, school attendance soared after the Taliban were deposed in 2001, with more than 3.6 million girls enrolled by 2018.

The number of people going to university has also increased dramatically, currently numbering in the tens of thousands. In 2020, about 6% of women were enrolled in university education, up from 1.8 percent in 2011.

Despite this, Afghanistan has one of the world’s largest education gender disparities, with UNICEF reporting that 60 percent of the 3.7 million Afghan children out of school are girls.

“Education allows them to take care of their health, have a stronger voice in their family, prevent domestic violence and become breadwinners,” said Forough, whose school teaches everything from English to graphic design and mobile application development.

“We didn’t want to wait. We wanted to continue our mission.”

According to UNICEF, school attendance soared after the Taliban were deposed in 2001, with more than 3.6 million girls enrolled by 2018.

The number of people going to university has also increased dramatically, currently numbering in the tens of thousands. In 2020, about 6% of women were enrolled in university education, up from 1.8 percent in 2011.

Despite this, Afghanistan has one of the world’s largest education gender disparities, with UNICEF reporting that 60 percent of the 3.7 million Afghan children out of school are girls.

Experts fear that the Taliban’s cash-strapped government will be unable to maintain electricity supplies, communication networks, and technological infrastructure.

Not only may satellite firms and fibre providers from neighbouring countries like Iran lose service, but the Taliban could begin snooping on and restricting communications, according to Mustafa Soltany, an IT expert in Kabul.

“The Taliban are very likely to impose stringent limits, surveillance, and even spying in the digital realm where they may hunt down dissidents and critics,” said Soltany, who has witnessed Taliban soldiers seizing and checking people’s phones at checkpoints.

Pashtana Zalmai Khan Durrani, the founder of the non-profit LEARN, is unconcerned about this. LEARN has enrolled about 100 girls in an underground school where they are learning STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) on tablets.

She is collaborating with US financial and technology corporations to launch satellite internet in order to avoid Taliban restrictions.

“I have my bases covered. They can’t do anything even if they try to cut internet access. We will be doing our own thing,” said the 23-year-old, who is hiding at an undisclosed location from the Taliban.

Muhammadi and her CTI classmates, like some of the LEARN students, have been working remotely with global IT firms on app development and graphic design.

This enables them to earn up to $500 per month – primarily in cash or through money transfers – and provide for their families, something that was inconceivable during the Taliban’s previous control.

But Muhammadi isn’t content with it.

“It is always said that Afghan women are weak and can do nothing … but I want to prove that we are strong,” she said.

“I want to continue to study and inspire more students … and be known as one of the best coders in the world.”

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