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.

Afghanistan’s Olympic champion

My latest story in The New York Times, a feature on Rohullah Nikpah, Afghanistan’s only Olympic medalist.

 

 

No Longer Unknown, Afghan Athlete Has Eyes on Gold

By ANGELA SHAH

KABUL — It was only by chance that a 10-year-old Rohullah Nikpah found taekwondo.

Unlike most Olympic athletes, Nikpah was not groomed from an early age to compete. Rather, he grew up in a refugee camp in Iran, and one day he accompanied his brother to a makeshift gym for a taekwondo sparring session.

The connection was immediate, a little like love at first sight.

“I just enjoyed practicing this sport,” he said simply.

He does more than enjoy it. Just four years after returning to Afghanistan from life as a refugee, Nikpah was standing on the podium at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a bronze medal around his neck. Unlikely as it may seem, that day produced Afghanistan’s first Olympic medalist.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

When Nikpah defeated the Spanish world champion Juan Antonio Ramos in the 58-kilogram, or 128-pound, category, he became a national hero in a place that has seen few in the past 30 years. To welcome him home, thousands of his countrymen gathered in Ghazi Stadium, which, until then, had been known more for the Taliban’s public executions, including stoning women to death.

When the preliminary round in taekwondo starts Aug. 8, Nikpah will no longer be an unknown but a returning champion. And this time he has his eyes on the gold. “I don’t have any stress for this competition, and I hope to Allah to go there and I will bring a good achievement back to the country,” he said.

Having moved up two weight classes since the Beijing Olympics, Nikpah is ranked 13th by the World Taekwondo Federation in the men’s 68-kilogram category.

If Hollywood is looking for its next hero, Nikpah fills the bill. Born two years before the Taliban took power in 1989, his family — ethnic Hazaras, a minority community that suffered discrimination under the Taliban — had to escape to Iran, where Nikpah grew up among fellow Afghan exiles and discovered taekwondo, a hugely popular sport there.

His family returned to Afghanistan in 2004. At age 21, Nikpah not only competed in his first Olympics, he took home a medal. He is tall, fit and blessed with movie-star looks. Even his haircut is popular with young men eager to imitate their hero. For a nation synonymous with the destruction of war, he is a welcome face of a new Afghanistan.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

“We are the young generation and can introduce our country to the world through the sports,” he said one morning at the Kabul home he shares with his family, a gift from President Hamid Karzai for his showing in Beijing.

Expectations are high in London. “He will definitely medal,” said Usman Dildar, an Afghan member of the London Organizing Committee who runs a large taekwondo studio in London. “What color? Inshallah, we’re hoping for gold.”

Continue reading “Afghanistan’s Olympic champion”

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.

Kabul, part deux

I returned to Afghanistan last week to tie up some loose reporting ends from my trip in January, and also, to work on a couple of new features. The potential for mayhem aside, I really enjoy visiting Afghanistan. While I still remained largely in a security bubble, this time I was able to wander out a bit to ISAF and Camp Eggers, both of which are near the villa in which I stayed and within the “Ring of Steel” that surrounds Kabul’s Green Zone. Whatever your feelings about the American presence in Afghanistan, the people I met, both military and civilian, genuinely hope their work there will in some way make life better for everyday Afghans. I hope to soon introduce you to a few of them, and also some interesting and enterprising Afghans I met during my trip. And Level Red alerts aside, daytime temperatures in the 70s, clear blue skies and cool evenings provided a wonderful respite from the 100-plus humidity of Dubai.

#Kabul

Part 1 of 3

Afghanistan is probably what you’d call a niche travel destination so I was surprised to find a Lonely Planet guidebook for the country, sitting beside those for other Central and South Asian locales.

Along with a fairly good history of the country detailing the many emperors Afghanistan has hosted in the last half-millennium, the book included, in its typical format, hotel and restaurant pics, categorized by quality and price, as well as recommendations for sight-seeing. It made for surreal reading given the pictures of war and strife most of us have witnessed via satellite TV in the last decade.

But, of course, these businesses exist. Afghans have gone out to eat, visited parks and mosques, and have made a life even in all the chaos. I had no sense of what to expect when I traveled there last week on a reporting trip to write about a U.S. program to support economic development in the country. As soon as I landed at the Kabul airport, I settled into a routine typical of an American visitor to Afghanistan, traveling in an armored SUV and accompanied by former British and American special forces officers who now work for private security contractors there.

Each car trip began with a security briefing, detailing what, if anything, happened overnight or during the day. (There were no incidents during my stay, thankfully, though the threat level was raised the Friday after the video emerged of the Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. There were concerns about retribution.) I stayed in a villa inside the Green Zone, near ISAF headquarters, Camp Eggers and the U.S. embassy — and the presidential palace of Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Security is a priority, understandably. While in the car, the procedure is, if under attack, that the driver will continue to drive through the incident to a safe house. (Our vehicle had rim flats, which allow driving even if the tires are blown. And we had an armed chase vehicle behind us that would provide cover. My job would be to get down low in the vehicle.) In any case, incidents or no, getting out of the car was unadvisable even though I really wished I could have captured the street scenes of everyday life there. I particularly loved the bakeries, with their human-sized naan hanging in the windows. These photos are all taken from the backseat, through the car window, all the while trying to keep my headscarf from slipping down to my shoulders.