Afganistan on Edge
|Frud Bezhan||December 3rd 2012|
Roya Mahboob is a rarity -- an Afghan woman in a position of power and influence. The 25-year-old tech entrepreneur is the CEO of Afghan Citadel Services, an IT firm she founded in the western city of Herat. Her staff of 20 software programmers -- more than half of them women -- develops computer software for government ministries, universities, and international organizations in Afghanistan.
But in this deeply traditional country, success for women also comes fraught with danger. Mahboob says she has received abusive phone calls and e-mails warning her to stop working and threatening to target her family.
"Women face many challenges. Even when they have great ideas they cannot start up their own businesses. Women also face insecurity," Mahboob says. "They can't go and work in the districts or villages. Women have traditional and cultural [challenges]. When you're working, people want to stop you so you can't continue your work."
Opening Up The Tech Market
Mahboob, who has served as project coordinator for the Afghan Higher Education Ministry's IT department, founded her firm with several classmates from Herat University back in 2010 with start-up capital of just $20,000 -- most of it coming from their own savings. The aim, she says, was to create jobs for recent university graduates -- especially women -- in Afghanistan's growing tech market.
"We wanted to use our knowledge in IT to bring some changes to the market and to bring change to the lives of Afghan women," Mahboob says. "IT can even help women work inside their homes, help them to make money, and give them an opportunity to use their knowledge."
In the decade following the end of Taliban rule in 2001, Afghan women have made considerable strides. Millions of girls are back in school, the country has a female provincial governor, and dozens of women are members of parliament.
But despite the progress, Afghanistan remains deeply conservative and male-dominated. Domestic abuse is routine, forced marriages are the norm, and women are discouraged from pursuing careers. Suicide rates among women are among the highest in the world.
Mahboob wants to create jobs for women in the Afghan tech sector. So not surprisingly, Mahboob's success as a businesswoman has sparked a fierce backlash from her community. She is constantly changing her phone number and e-mail address due to the threatening calls and messages she says she receives almost daily.
Her father has been supportive. But even he is often confronted by locals who tell him it is dishonorable for his daughter to be working in public, meeting male clients, and even driving a car. Two of Mahboob's female employees have already resigned under pressure from locals.
Overcoming Market Discrimination
Mahboob has also had to overcome considerable market discrimination. She says potential Afghan clients, many of them men, often laugh and express skepticism that she is actually a CEO. Some refuse outright to do business with her company.
"When we go to [potential] customers, they don't believe that women can do [business]. They give you a smile or they look at you as though you cannot [deliver]. Even if they want your product, they want you to give it to them for a price that is cheaper than [the price charged by] a male competitor," Mahboob says. But despite the obstacles, Mahboob and her business have thrived.
Afghan Citadel Services currently has ongoing or finished projects worth approximately $500,000. Among the projects the company has completed are a patient-management system created for Afghan hospitals and a student-registration system for universities and private schools. Recently, the company has opened new offices, including one in the capital, Kabul. Mahboob has also hired more staff to meet needs as the company's business expands.
The company is also expanding into other sectors. Earlier this year, it partnered with Film Annex, an online film distribution platform, to launch the Afghan Development Project. The project seeks to show "a new face" of Afghanistan by broadcasting current events-related videos, interviews, and news clips. Her company is also working with Film Annex to equip Afghan schools with Internet access in order to connect students with the outside world -- and discourage them from joining the insurgency.
But for Mahboob, it isn't just about business and the bottom line. She says her main goal is to become a role model for Afghan women. "My message to Afghan women is that they should be ready to change their lives. They [can't] stay at home and say, 'We are just women and we have to stay at home and we accept it,'" Mahboob says.
"We have to understand that we have rights. We can bring a lot of changes to society and can bring peace and prosperity to the economy of Afghanistan."
Frud Bezhan reports for RFE/RL, from where this article is adapted.