A female pioneer in Afghanistan

My story on Roya Mahboob, a young woman entrepreneur in Afghanistan in Newsweek/Daily Beast. Not only is she trying to build a business in a fragile economic environment but she also has to battle cultural and religious norms that don’t support women who seek a place outside of the home.

HERAT, Afghanistan

A 25-year-old female entrepreneur working to help the next generation is also a model for it. Angela Shah reports.

The 25-year-old is at once exhilarated and shy. A woman is not supposed to attract so much attention. Just minutes earlier, a male colleague offered her a word to the wise as he gently pulled down her head scarf to cover her throat and shoulders, exposed from the scoop-necked top she wore, saying: “There are conservative men inside.

On this day in late May, the girls at Baghnazargah High School were getting computers and Internet access for the first time. Mahboob’s IT company, Afghan Citadel Services, or ACS, installed the technology lab as part of a project to help wire schools in Herat, and Mahboob offered welcome remarks as a panel of bearded men dressed in traditional salwar kameez, elders in this community, along with school officials, sipped tea behind her.

Baghnazargah is located in a poor section of Herat and many of the female students come from conservative families. While boys can move freely, and so attend computer tutorials outside of school, girls are only allowed to leave home to attend school. And those girls are, in a sense, the lucky ones: most girls don’t even attend high school. Like most 16-year-olds, Augiza longs to surf the Web, but she doesn’t have an email address. “This is the only way for me to learn the computer,” she says. “It gives me [a] connection to everywhere in the world.”

For students like Augiza, Mahboob is a revelation. Here is a woman less than a decade older than they are who runs her own company and flies in from Kabul on her own for ribbon-cutting ceremonies like the one on this day. She, they can see, has a position of power. Once the men have left and the formal festivities are concluded, the girls congregate around Mahboob in packs of threes and fours asking to take pictures with her.

“You have to show everybody that men and women are equal,” Mahboob says. “Women can do something if you allow them. Give them opportunity and they can prove themselves.”

(Photo by Gabriela Maj)

In a country where the Taliban had outlawed telephones, Afghanistan has quickly wired itself in the last decade. The number of Internet users in the country has grown from 300,000 in 2006 to 1 million two years ago, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Only 20 percent of Afghanistan is electrified; it’s only 20 percent literate,” says Paul Brinkley, the former deputy undersecretary of defense. “But 60 percent have a cellphone. What does this tell you about the Afghan people? They’re starving for information. You need that more to stabilize this country than all the security things you could do.”

Brinkley, a Silicon Valley veteran before joining the government, founded the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan in 2010, to link the department’s military operations with economic development. That program led to the Herat Information Technology Program, which started in May 2011 with an inaugural class of seven Afghan entrepreneurs, including Mahboob. The program’s goal is to show the potential of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw troops and treasure by the end of 2014: that, with a little bit of help from the international community, talented and determined Afghans are succeeding despite an enduring insurgency, a frequently inefficient and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy, and a weak domestic economy.

“Roya represents what the majority of Afghanistan wants,” he says. “To stand on their own two feet, to build their own lives.”

Mahboob founded ACS two years ago along with two Herat University classmates with an investment of $20,000, partly through savings from their jobs lecturing at the university and with funds from Mahboob’s family. She owns 45 percent of ACS, with the remaining shares divided among the two former Herat University classmates and her brother and sister.

In an industrial-park compound behind high walls topped with concertina wire, the entrepreneurs set up offices in free office spaces with Internet provided by the program and attended seminars on “Business 101″: how to create a business plan to attract investors, how to respond to RFPs, and how to price their services.

A year after the incubator’s launch, some entrepreneurs are still struggling to establish a commercial foothold. But others, like Mahboob, have thrived. Crucially, ACS is making the transition away from sourcing business solely through contracts offered by ISAF and international groups and toward Afghan governments, hospitals, and schools. Currently, the company has projects underway or completed worth $500,000. In the last year, Mahboob has hired three additional software programmers and aggressively sought contracts for projects worth millions.

“What matters is that those Afghan businesses are doing better than before,” says Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat who founded the nongovernmental organization Building Markets, which recently changed its name from the Peace Dividend Trust. “That is your sustainability.”

A NATO promotional video last year featuring Mahboob attracted the attention of Francesco Rulli, a New York businessman. The Italian-born Rulli is sort of a Renaissance man entrepreneur—one of his businesses is a men’s clothing line in partnership with actor John Malkovich—and he says he was attracted by Mahboob’s spunk.

So far, he and his brother have invested nearly $120,000 to build eight computer labs in Herat schools like the one at Baghnazargah High School. “I sent the first $15,000 and within a week, ACS had built up the first classroom,” he says.

“I have an opportunity to do the right thing,” he explains. “I appreciate the fact that this is a woman with the opportunity to do something meaningful.”

Rulli runs Film Annex, a Web-based video-content farm that allows individuals to create Web TV channels; Rulli profits by capturing and selling user data. He says the site has 30 million page views a day. He and Mahboob recently expanded their partnership to install computer labs in other Central Asian countries, and to develop e-learning and testing platforms for use in those schools. Mahboob’s university classmate and co-investor Fereshteh Forough plans to move to New York by the end of the year to open an office there.

“Let’s give the kids the Internet and let them choose what they want their future to be,” Rulli says. “I have three kids. I know ‘Angry Birds’ is a stronger weapon against the Taliban than anything else.”

Late one spring evening as Mahboob and I enjoyed the breeze at Takht-e-Safar, the mountain-side park that overlooks Herat, she told me: “You know, in Afghanistan, we women are not supposed to go out, run the business, but I don’t agree with this.” The park is a popular retreat for Heratis, but past sundown, it is mainly the refuge of men clumped together on car hoods or blankets. Hidden by the darkness and foliage, Mahboob and I could allow our head scarves to loosen.

“If we can’t prove to 100 people that women have ability and skills, we can prove it to at least 10 people,” she says. “That’s enough.”

Mahboob tells me that she first discovered the Web in high school in 2003, when she saw her cousin in Iran use Yahoo messenger. Her lack of knowledge shamed her. She immediately saw how isolated she had been among Iran’s Afghan refugees and how the Web could connect her not only to Afghanistan but to the rest of the world. So, when her family moved to Herat just across the Iranian border later that year, she enrolled in Information and communications technology courses offered for women by the United Nations Development Programme.

Recognizing technology’s power to connect her to the rest of the world, she pursued a computer sciences degree at Herat University. After graduation she stayed on as a junior faculty member in the university’s computer lab. There she first got a taste of her biggest obstacle in business: she’s a woman.

Slender, 5-feet tall and partial to fashionable tunics, skinny jeans, and heels, curly bangs escape from her headscarf onto her forehead. “When I started working at university, all people were thinking that I am a typist,” she says. “I created websites, databases for them, but they never even mention our names. They mentioned my deputy when he was a man.”

Even today, when responding to contract bids at ministries in Kabul, Mahboob says bureaucrats often openly disbelieve that she is the CEO of her own company. She has recently pitched the Ministry of Public Health for services on an IT contract. “She is a woman,” Mahboob says of the minister. “I hope she will listen.”

Such paternal condescension is fairly common, and Mahboob has learned to navigate around the soft discrimination. But the opposition is also, frequently, more sinister.

One afternoon in late May, Mahboob picks up her ringing cellphone. Without saying anything—she makes a slight face—she pushes the button to hang up the line.

Physical threats from anonymous male callers come almost daily. While her own father and brother support her efforts at ACS, many in the conservative community of Herat do not. “They call and call and call, saying ‘I will pay you, too,’ as if I am doing bad things to get business,” she says.

For many conservative men, Mahboob’s having business meetings with unrelated men on her own—a basic of doing business–is akin to prostituting herself: the business men can only be paying her for one thing, and that is sex.

Ahkhtar Mohammed Mahboob says he, too, receives phone calls asking why he doesn’t force his daughter to abandon her business. “It has been difficult for us, for our family,” he says after breakfast at the Herat home he shares with his wife; his daughters, Roya and Elha; and his son, Ali.

“Maybe they will hurt Roya but I can’t change myself or my daughter,” he says, quietly. “This is her time. We cannot stop progress.”

Mahboob used to switch among an assortment of SIM cards to deflect her harassers, but is now resigned to the taunting and threats. For the last eight months, she’s kept the same cellphone number.

“What can I do?” Mahboob asks. “I have to keep working for my company, for my country. We have to stay focused on helping girls.”

Angela Shah is a journalist based in Dubai whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TIME and The Dallas Morning News.

The girls in Herat

One of the aspects of being a journalist that I love is the opportunity to meet so many different people, in all kinds of circumstances, in all kinds of lives. On my recent trip to Herat, I was able to visit a couple of girls’ schools. I attended the inauguration of the school’s first computer lab and as things were wrapping up, I peeked behind the curtain to see at least half a dozen tents filled with rows and rows of girls in matching white headscarves doing their lessons.

The school, which teaches girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon, simply doesn’t have enough classrooms. It was humbling to see these girls sitting cross-legged on the ground as their teacher went through the lessons armed only with a chalkboard smaller than the big screen TVs most of us have in our homes.

The school is located in a poorer area of the city and many of the girls come from conservative homes. Just being able to attend school is a very big deal. Having computers and Internet access, one student told me, is her connection to the rest of the world.

Arab Voices Before the ‘Spring’

For many people, 2011 was the year of an awakened Arabia, whose voices served as the catalyst for the oft-mentioned “Spring.” Sultan Al Qassemi, who writes the Felix Arabia blog, gained a measure of fame himself during this season of Arab discontent and revolution. Still, as powerful as these voices are, Al Qassemi recently wrote in Jadaliyya, an online publication produced by the Arab Studies Institute, about the voices who came before tweets and Facebook status updates.

Today the number of Twitter and Facebook users in the Gulf is estimated to be in the millions. Many are outspoken and critical of Gulf Arab regime policies, religious establishments, and the stagnation of social and political reform. There is no doubt that this space for online peaceful dissent would be even narrower and less tolerated than it is today had it not been for the courageous activism of the Arab and Gulf blogging pioneers. A majority of these social media pioneers have incorporated new mediums into their activism, but a few chose to stop blogging altogether. Some are no longer with us today, while others have gone into hiding in fear of being jailed.

The story introduces readers to many of these pioneer Arab voices, some of whom are now silent — willingly or unwillingly. As we look forward to 2012, which will likely reveal further change in the Arab world, it’s worth keeping in mind those who spoke out even when the world’s spotlight wasn’t shining on them.

A cost of free trade

My latest story in The New York Times’ global edition is on free trade zones, which have spurred billions in foreign direct investment into the U.A.E. They are also attracting less savory enterprises.

 

 

Free-Trade Zones Attract Criminals

By ANGELA SHAH

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — As free economic zones grow in size and number across the globe, they are increasingly popular spots for illicit trade.

Counterfeiting and money laundering can flourish in these zones, typically manufacturing and warehousing sites near ports and airports, where governments relax tax and regulatory requirements to attract foreign investment and ease the rapid movement of goods.

Conditions that attract honest businesses attract criminals, too.

“Organized crime and counterfeiters are very resourceful and creative,” said Stuart Jones, a U.S. Treasury financial attaché based in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. “They are also interested in free-trade zones to exploit the very ecosystem governments created to contribute to economic development.”

Globally, there are about 3,000 free-trade zones in about 135 countries, through which billions of dollars’ worth of goods are transferred every year. Most of the United Arab Emirates’ 36 free-trade zones are in Dubai, but other emirates are also creating them as investment vehicles, including Masdar, a green-energy zone in Abu Dhabi. The oldest free-trade zone in the Emirates, the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone, is one of the largest in the world, and handles 11 million containers each month.

That volume is reflected in the crime statistics. According to data from European Union customs, the Emirates were the No.2 source of counterfeit goods, after only China, in 2008 and 2009, said Omar Shteiwi, chairman of the Brand Owners Protection Group, an anti-counterfeiting group based in the region.

The zones’ susceptibility to illegal activities was also cited earlier this year by the Financial Action Task Force, an international watchdog organization based in Paris that co-ordinates and monitors government efforts to block money laundering and terrorist financing. Free-trade zones do improve economic opportunity, but the characteristics that make these enclaves attractive to business also create chances for illicit programs that can finance terrorism, the task force warned.

Screening of cargo is “often carried out by random selection more than on risk assessment or indicators,” the task force found. “No clear procedure, authority, or documentation is identified to organize and execute the examinations.”

Security in free-trade zones was a topic recently at the 10th World Free Zone Convention and Exhibition held in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.

“You now have to factor in the globalization of illicit trade: How to balance trade efficiencies and low cost with the need to supervise what’s going on?” Pat Heneghan, who heads global operations against illicit trade at British American Tobacco in London, said as part of a panel discussion.

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