Taliban Resurgence Could Threaten Afghan School Teaching Women To Code And Build Ethereum Apps
“#TerroristTaliban are taking away our dreams and future”
This group message is one of several received by Feresheteh Forough, 35-year old founder of Code to Inspire, a computing programming school based in the western Afghan province of Herat teaching women to build distributed applications (dapps), smart contracts, and launch digital tokens.
Over the last several months the students learned how to do everything from map data structures and query blockchains, to setting up their own programs and discussing the key differences between leading networks such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.
With the U.S. military leaving Afghanistan after 20 years of war, the longest in American history and just shy of the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, the country’s former leaders wasted no time reclaiming sovereignty over the entire country.
The ‘Graveyard of Empires,’ as it is known in diplomatic circles, has officially claimed another victim, and the Afghan people are left to pick up the pieces.
There was hope that things were going to be different this time, says Forough who fled Afghanistan in 1981 with her family during its war with the Soviets. Forough’s father was a high-ranking mujahideen and was directly targeted by the Soviets.
Forough spent her formative years in Iran and completed graduate studies in computer science at the Technical University in Berlin. After her father was asked by the new Afghan government to take a position of authority in Herat to help protect the critical western border with Iran, Forough moved back to her native Afghanistan to become a professor of computer science in 2010.
She says many Afghans initially felt a sense of hope about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. When Forough first moved back it was a bit of a culture shock, even for her. Despite the family being relatively affluent, she said that their home lacked regular access to basic services that many westerns take for granted, such as running water and electricity. “We didn't have electricity except for a few hours per day, and we had to take water out of a well...it was shocking to see for the first time.”
Still, there was hope, as well as bountiful amounts of aid and money. However, Forough says there was also a belief that much of this economic stimulus was just a facade. She had a sense that this external stimulus would be unsustainable, and women in particular would struggle to achieve economic independence when it runs out. However, at the same time the millions of women in Afghanistan, who were forced into their traditional roles as homemakers during Taliban rule, were given opportunities to secure their own future under the new government for the first time.
“The economy was good, but it wasn’t like Afghanistan was creating something. Maybe it was a fake economy, in the sense that people caught that prosperity, but in reality it was just money coming in from the outside.”
In 2012, Forough moved to New York City because of another non-profit that she started, but was determined to help women in her province. In 2015, with $22 in funding from an Indiegogo campaign, 20 laptop computers donated by Overstock.com, and help from friends living in Herat, she created Code to Inspire, a computer programming school for women. “As a woman in the technology sector in Afghanistan, I faced verbal sexual harassment, descrimination, and threats, despite being a professor,” she says from her current digs in New Hampshire. “I wanted to change the situation also.”
Tuition is free for students, and they can learn game design, web design, graphic design, full stack programming, as well as the basics of crypto and blockchain programming such as building smart contracts (pieces of code that can automatically execute) and Solidity (the programming language native to Ethereum, the world’s second-largest blockchain.” The school also partnered with prominent Ethereum investor and development studio ConsenSys, which sponsored some students to attend a conference in Japan.
In total the school has graduated more than 300 students since its inception in 2015 about half of them finding work in the field earning north of $30,000 cumulatively across 30 projects.
The school also accepts donations in crypto. It started out with Bitcoin and Ethereum, but through a partnership with the U.S. based Winklevoss twins (of Facebook fame), it has been able to expand the range of tokens that it can accept.
Crypto and blockchain may seem like an unusual partner for Afghanistan or Code to Inspire, but as Forough tells it, she saw its potential early on. She first heard about Bitcoin in 2014 and immediately recognized its ability to provide a financial lifeline to the vast majority of women in the country that could not obtain a bank account, provided that they even trust banks in the first place. PayPal doesn’t operate in the country, and while Western Union is available, it can be very expensive. People ended up keeping cash under their mattresses.
In many ways, crypto was a revelation. “It was amazing, because the girls didn't have to reveal their identity. We just had to have their email address, help them create a wallet, and then we could instantly send them money. They could also keep it and not tell anyone that they had it. That sense of privacy and ownership was amazing to me, and how fast you can just do that [send money].”
Of course there were some hurdles that still needed to be overcome. After all, hardly any merchants in Afghanistan accept Bitcoin, so there had to be a way for the students to convert the digital currency into the local currency, called afghanis. Fortunately, because Code to Inspire had a local bank account, they were able to do the conversions for students themselves, acting as almost an exchange in their own right.
Crypto also ended up becoming a lifeline for Code to Inspire itself. As Forough tells it, last winter the school’s bank in the west, JPMorgan, stopped processing wires to fund its operating expenses ($5,000-$6,000 per month) due to heightened concerns about anti-money laundering and terrorist financing risks. She also experienced trouble with Western Union.
Therefore, in February of this year the school decided to start funding its operations in crypto. They found somebody on the ground that could convert the crypto to cash for them, and since that time the school has been entirely funded by crypto transfers.
Unfortunately, as Afghanistan moves forwards, or backwards, under Taliban rule, the resilience, perseverance, and creativity shown by Forough is going to be tested once more. The school has closed its physical location in the country, something she never expected to do when the Doha Agreement was signed in February 2020 between the U.S. and Taliban that set the timetable for troop withdrawal (though she did temporarily close during the pandemic), and only teaches classes virtually at this point.
However, with the Taliban taking over the country she fears that it could shut down internet access. The group already blew up the electricity tower and main internet hub in Herat during its most recent campaign, she says.. The internet is back now, but it is slow and spotty. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that the fundamentalist group would want to completely shut down the country’s internet connection, as it uses social media as a tool for recruiting and propaganda purposes. It is unlikely that the Taliban has the capability to block certain websites at this juncture, and even then there could be workarounds such as virtual private networks (VPNs). After all, if the Chinese government cannot prevent linkages in its firewall given its expertise and resources, the Taliban would likely be unsuccessful as well.
However, the bigger question remains whether or not the Taliban will even let the school continue to function, should it discover or take an interest in its operations. On this point, Forough expressed interest in speaking with the Taliban to highlight the merits of the school. After all, she, just like the U.S. government and every other ruling party around the world, will need to create a working relationship with Afghanistan’s new rulers. Additionally, there is some hope emerging in diplomatic circles that the Taliban may seek to avoid becoming an international pariah and try to achieve more international acceptance this time around.
But for now, Forough just hopes for the safety and security of her students, family, and contacts on the ground.Source