Roya Mahboob knew that she wanted to build a career in technology from the first time she set her eyes on a computer in the only internet cafe in Herat, Afghanistan, when she was 16 years old.
In 2010, at the age of 23 she became the first tech chief executive in Afghanistan when she founded Afghan Citadel Software (ACS) with the aim of involving more women in her country’s growing technology business.
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“We are not thinking, we are not supposed to do critical thinking,” says Mahboob, discussing the way she and many women grew up in Afghanistan.
Mahboob was born in Iran to Afghan parents as one of seven children. Her parents had travelled to Iran during the Soviet invasion, and the family moved back to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban government in 2003, where she began her university studies and learned English.
Along with some of her siblings, including her sister Elaha as her partner, Mahboob established ACS shortly after.
“I think digital literacy can give women a voice in our global conversation. Then, they can find different skills and get their financial independence,” she says.
The entire generation of youth in Afghanistan deserves to gain control over their futures.
She recalls the day when she and a friend walked into the Internet cafe. They were the only two women in the room and many of the men stared at them. Without allowing this to bother her, Mahboob immersed herself in the world of digital technology from that day on.
“I saw the incredible power of social media and technology in my life, and I saw how it connected me to the world, and that I could work from home, and grow my business,” Mahboob says.
Afghanistan currently has 6.4 Internet users per 100 people, and the number has been growing exponentially in the past 10 years.
A tool to surpass obstacles
In Afghanistan, women often stay inside their home, only interacting with family members and close friends. “We don’t do social things. It is also supposed that [a woman] should not laugh a lot, it is considered bad for a girl.”
Afghan society is male dominated, she says. It is a society where women are only taught to listen to their teacher, to the mullah during prayer time, and to their parents.
Although women are participating in the economy more and more in Afghanistan, Mahboob thinks there is still much to do, and that many women are overshadowed by their husbands.
Technology and the internet are a door to the rest of the world in a society where women are given a “very narrow vision” of the world, she says.
“Technology has opened a lot of doors for me, and I want to give girls and women the same tools that I had. They can become digital citizens, where there is no border, no society to limit them,” she explains.
Obstacles of a conservative society
Mahboob recalls the many obstacles she faced in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society when she started Afghan Citadel. “There were uncountable challenges, a new drama every day,” Mahboob says.
“One of the major challenges we faced was that we could not get clients, mainly because we were women. They didn’t trust us, did not know what IT was, or wanted to pay us less.”
Someone would try to stop her and her colleagues at every step, she says. “They put spies on my walls, they threatened the women not to work with me, they threatened me …”
Outside Afghanistan, she reflects, there is a common thought that the main problems in the country are caused by the presence of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group also known as ISIS) or the local Taliban.
“Yes, they are hated, not only by me but any woman who works in the society. But you also have the very conservative people, that are all around you – your neighbours, or in your workplace.”
“I reached around 500 companies outside and was very persistent,” she laughs. Through her work, she expanded her network and met Francesco Rulli, an Italian businessman and philanthropist based in New York. These contacts developed into more fruitful projects. With the help of Rulli, she founded the Digital Citizen Fund (DCF), a non-profit company that helps women and girls in developing countries gain access to technology and connect with the rest of the world.
DCF has built 11 Technology Centres in 11 schools, two stand-alone Media & Innovation centres and has trained 8,000 female students in digital literacy. They are currently planning to expand their programme to Mexico, and train 5,000 more girls.
“For those in the prime of their formative and creative years, the Internet is a world of opportunity. It is also an ideal platform for learning the skills that empower them to become more independent and self-sufficient. The entire generation of youth in Afghanistan deserves to gain control over their futures,” she adds.
Mahboob was forced to leave Afghanistan in 2014 because she received constant threats which, she says, also put her family in danger. She now lives in New York. But, despite the distance, she was able to stay close to her projects and the girls and women she was teaching through her very own technology innovations.
Mahboob says that through her local company, she and other women are developing a software called Edy Edy, a system that allows schools and business to be connected. This will help pupils acquire practical training and apply skills that will make them employable in the private sector.
“My mission is to bridge the gap between school-based education and real local jobs,” she says.
The Afghan economy is highly dependent on international aid, with 61 percent of the country’s operating budget funded by foreign donors.
Youth unemployment makes children vulnerable to being recruited by armed groups, while a brain drain drives young people out of the country in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere. In 2016 alone, more than 50,000 Afghans left the country.
Mahboob thinks that employment opportunities are critical for the development of her country and “sees a huge benefit in providing useful and applied skills” to overcome youth unemployment in Afghanistan.
She knows that technology will lead the way to this better future. And for the women of Afghanistan, Mahboob says that her mission is to empower women and children through digital literacy, and connect them to a “world beyond their borders”.