My Fight to Break the Concrete Ceiling of Gender Inequality in Afghanistan
In 2010, I founded Afghan Citadel Software Co., an IT company, in a country in which only 15 percent of the female population is literate, female oppression and subjugation is the norm, and a conservatism dangerous to anyone who wishes to change societal relationships lingers after the reign of the Taliban. Now, with 25 employees, 18 of whom are women, Afghan Citadel has become the foundation for social change and the elimination of gender barriers in my country. Over the course of the last three years, it had always appeared that each step forward would continue to bring larger challenges.
I would like to tell you about those challenges, how imperceptible change was at first, and how we Afghani women, with the growing support of the world, continue to break through the barriers that we face.
Afghan Citadel employs mostly women in an effort to empower them in the eyes of their families. Many believe that women should stay at home to care for the entire family; the idea of having women go to work met resistance everywhere. As more women began to sneak to work or work remotely from their homes, we began to see a trend. Perhaps not surprisingly, husbands become decent advocates for their wives' new jobs once they begin seeing extra money trickle into the home, which can give the woman a powerful supporter in the debate with mothers and mother-in-laws over whether she is fulfilling her familial duties.
Enough women proved the worth of their employment and education to the entire family to make a success of Afghan Citadel and its employment policy. Having taken small steps towards unsettling the balance of power in families, we began investing all of the company's profits into a program to build computer classrooms with Internet access for for girls. A boy's education is supported financially, but families do not support females. Girls are not supposed to go to Internet cafes.
In response to this challenge, we garnered the support of Herat's Head of Education, and we began taking larger steps. So far, eight classrooms have been built in Herat, connecting 35,000 girls. We have plans to launch 40 schools, which would reach 160,000 girls across Afghanistan. More than 5,000 girls have learned Examer, an interactive and educational social networking platform with a micro-scholarship payment system my partners and I developed. We will continue to push for this opportunity for girls—proficiency in technology empowers women economically and socially by connecting women who are unlikely to meet due to traditional values.
Of course, this enraged the Taliban and radical Islamists that surround our projects. We had received threats before because of the very nature of our work, but the death threats and hateful attacks began to pour in once these cafes opened. In the rest of the world, they talk of a glass ceiling for women. In Afghanistan, it is made of cement, and around this time those who fight against us to this day began to see the cement ceiling over women in Afghanistan begin to shake.
We kept moving forward. In 2011, we founded a blog and video site called Womens's Annex to educate women online and allow them to share stories. Nearly 300 female student bloggers have posted on the site, making themselves heard and changing the way the world sees Afghanistan. More importantly, these Afghan girls and women see themselves, hear themselves, and develop voices that began to demand an audience at home.
Those voices continued to develop for two long years in the face of threats, familial tensions, and the structure of a society designed to keep them silent. A few months ago, I found myself on Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Though I insisted that it must be a mistake, the nice people at Time assured me that it was true. Things have changed since then.
Those who threatened the companies, myself, and my team now had a picture of me and an even larger motivation to redouble their efforts to scare us out of educating women. Though the threats and the danger of the situation postponed my return to Afghanistan after visiting the U.S., I could be confident that the growing number of threats confirmed what I had begun to know—the cement ceiling had begun to crack.
I want to see me country changed. I want to eliminate gender barriers by increasing educational opportunities to young, underprivileged women. In the last few months, I have made powerful friends and allies, proving that the future ahead is a bright one, but things have not and will not be easy. I cannot force a change in values upon the people of Afghanistan, but if the world wants the Afghani people to embrace the notions of equality and liberty, it must help us promote education.
We need money to break these barriers, we need job opportunities to free these women, and we need laptops to allow them to work safely at home now that the U.S. military plans to leave the area, leaving our Internt cafes open to attack. I am sure that if we can crumble the cement ceiling in Afghanistan with enough momentum, we can shatter the glass ceiling above it.