Hundreds of Afghan women have enrolled in online and in-person classes that are secretly held in several parts of the country under Project Soraya and Code to Inspire.
As an education advocate, Pashtana Durrani has worked through her charity LEARNAfg to provide education to children in rural areas, especially girls, since 2017.
But when the Taliban took over in August and the group excluded girls from returning to secondary school temporarily until a “safe learning environment” could be established, Durrani set up secret digital classes in science, technology, engineering and maths on tablets.
About 100 teenage girls in southern Afghanistan are enrolled in the online and in-person underground classes.
“We started a GoFundFe page and gathered some funds to buy tablets and pay the teachers. It’s all underground. Nothing is through banks or money transfers. It's all in cash,” Durrani told TRTWorld.
Named after Queen Soraya of Afghanistan, the first Afghan woman to serve as the country’s minister of education, Durrani hopes to expand Project Soraya to other parts of the country.
“I lost hope when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, I lost the will to live, but then when I think of my students and how motivated they are to seek education despite the challenges, it helps me keep going,” she said.
This past Saturday, the girls studied bytes on "How to set personal and professional goals". They wrote their personal, PRO goals and discussed them with each other— LEARN (@LEARNAfg) November 30, 2021
Pro goals = Positive Realistic Objective goals#Afghanistan#LetAfghanGirlsLearn pic.twitter.com/1cfApZalYP
Education has been an ongoing struggle for Afghanistan over the past four decades where in regional areas of the country, schools lack basic necessities, from books to trained teachers.
There are also traditional and sociocultural factors that undermine girls’ education.
Girls account for 60 percent of the 3.7 million Afghan children out of school, according to United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
The Taliban closure of schools made millions of girls anxious about their future as they suffered a severe setback in their education.
Now even if schools reopen, students will struggle to catch up with their studies, exams and university applications.
With the Taliban’s reputation, established during their harsh rule in the 90s when women were not allowed to go to school or work, many Afghans feared the return of severe restrictions, especially of women’s freedoms when the group took over in August.
Many women academics, journalists, judges and activists went into hiding, and many schools and academies, underground.
One of those academies is Fereshteh Forough’s Code to Inspire in Herat, where young women learn coding skills to be empowered financially and socially.
Established in 2015, it was an in-person computer science school with free tuition and laptops.
“We do this by employing local mentors to teach them how to code, help them find programming jobs, and guide them to build digital careers and launch technology ventures toward economic independence,” Forough told TRT World.
Rumie partner, @LEARNAfg conducted a workshop on Introduction to E-Learning.— Rumie (@RumieLearn) November 24, 2021
Learn more about our work with LEARN Afghanistan: https://t.co/phghxmPMAJ
#learning #afghanistan #edtech #education #highereducation #research #afghanistancrisis #afghanistanwar #afghanwomen pic.twitter.com/YaFVTDoyrA
After the Taliban takeover, that mission continued with classes now held online.
The all-female coding academy has since created encrypted virtual classrooms where courses are held online.
The academy has given laptops and internet packages to about 100 students so far.
Opened in November 2015, Code to Inspire was a product of Forough’s deep passion to rebuild Afghanistan.
Her mission stemmed from her personal journey navigating systems of “oppression and desire to prevent other women from facing these adversities”.
Born in a refugee camp in Iran, her parents were forced to leave Afghanistan after the Soviet Invasion in 80s.
As a young refugee girl in Iran, Forough recalls how she learnt to become an educator and entrepreneur from her mother.
“I remember being in awe of her as she learned how to stitch and then sold clothes to buy school supplies for me and my seven siblings. She proved to me that great things can start with empty hands.
“As I grew up I realised that education is a fundamental human right and a critical component for females to overcome oppression,” she told TRT World.
Code to Inspire offers classes on game design, mobile applications, web development and graphic design. Courses in blockchain and cryptocurrency also began a year ago.
According to Forough, 70 percent of students come from poor financial backgrounds or are not permitted by their families, due to safety or gender mixing concerns, to participate in extracurricular activities.
“By teaching them coding and other complementary skills, such as graphic design, they begin a path towards financial independence and help narrow the economic and educational gender gap in Afghanistan,” she said.
Last month, education minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani said at a news conference that women would be allowed to study in universities but classes will be gender-segregated.
And if that is not possible, classes for female students will be conducted online.
How the Taliban act towards women's education and their rights is seen as a benchmark for international assistance and the release of more than $9 billion in Afghan central-bank assets held by the US.
For Forough, investing in women’s education in a conflict zone like Afghanistan is about changing the narrative in a country for women who have been deprived of their rights for decades.
“I came across girls who have never touched a computer, been online or had a basic phone. Now they are creating websites, games and mobile apps,” she said.
“Witnessing their excitement of learning new skills and discovering that they have the freedom of being whoever they want to be fuels my desire to scale our impact.”