The Afghan Dreamers all-girls robotics team was supposed to embody a new vision of Afghanistan. The team was made up of teenagers who grew up in the post-Taliban era, and had access to cell phones, TV, and the Internet. The group, founded in 2017 by Roya Mahboob, Afghanistan’s first female tech CEO, was based in Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat, and built a reputation for itself of being vibrant and resourceful.
The Afghan Dreamers competed internationally, and won. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the team worked on a low-cost ventilator using parts from old Toyota cars. The team’s enthusiasm and success earned it support from the Afghan government, which agreed to help build The Dreamer Institute in Kabul to educate youth from across the country. Members of the team wanted to start their own companies, become engineers — even go to Mars.
Now, that the Taliban has asserted control over Afghanistan, that vision looks increasingly shattered. Even before the Taliban’s recent advances, prominent women in the country were targeted for abuse, and murder. Three journalists and a doctor were gunned down earlier this year. In May, explosions outside of a high school in Kabul killed at least 90 people, many of them teenage girls returning home after class.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to fight for basic rights of access to education, justice, and work in 2021,” Mahboob told Rest of World. “Conservative people want to keep women and young children in darkness to control them and keep their power.”
Mahboob interviewed four girls on the robotics team last month: Elham, Diana, Somaya, and Ayda. On August 12, Herat fell to the Taliban; members of the Afghan Dreamers fled the city.
The following interviews have been condensed for brevity and clarity.
Afghan women are capable of everything and can succeed in every field. When I grow up, I want to become a mechanical engineer. My mother has completed high school; she couldn’t continue her education because of the war. I have three paternal aunts who are homemakers. Of my seven maternal aunts, one is a dentist, two are teachers, two are working in administration, and two are homemakers.
In 2018, in a general exam that took place in all of the Herat schools, I got the marks required to join the robotics team. My mother and father supported me, but some family members and friends did not agree. They thought that women and girls cannot work in robotics and mechanics — that this field is specific to men.
My dream for the future is to have a free and developed Afghanistan. The thing I am proud of is that all our team members are below 18 years old. We have been able to participate in the biggest international competitions and conferences.
When we go somewhere, the thing I notice is that everyone has the right to choose, whether in the field of education or choosing a job. They have more facilities and tools for education, and, therefore, they progress rapidly. I hope that one day Afghanistan will have the same facilities, so the youth can use these facilities to gain success for their country and prove themselves to the world.
To continue my education in STEM, I want to study in one of the world’s best universities. Undoubtedly, everyone loves his or her birthplace. However, if forced, I will go to one of the foreign countries because of lack of security and, for my higher studies, study my favorite field and return back to Afghanistan to serve it even better.
The U.S. forces’ withdrawal has affected the morale of all members of the society, has caused more concerns in women of different fields, and has made them worried about deprivation of liberty of education and work. The biggest hurdle that we have to overcome is the ideology of the traditional community of Afghanistan. We want to change it in regards to girls and women, and, fortunately, I think to some extent, our team was successful in suppressing this ideology.
I would say to all boys and girls, whether older or younger than me, that when they have a goal; they should never give up under any condition. When God puts a desire and capability in our heart, it is because God has seen the capability of reaching that goal or desire in us. The road to success is full of hurdles. Never leave your path. Think about the moment you achieve success, and that will be the moment of happiness.
I want to be a mechanical engineer when I grow up. Currently, in Afghanistan, we have very few women working in this field. I want to be one of the women who took the first step in this regard. Earlier this year, Forbes listed the Afghan Girls Robotics Team among its list of 30 scientists and inventors under age 30 in Asia. This was an honor not only for me but for my whole family. I am very happy.
Currently my mother is a homemaker, though she used to be a teacher. Two of my maternal aunts are teachers, and one of them is a doctor. All of my paternal aunts are educated, but they are still homemakers. Fortunately, in our family, women have the rights of education and work outside the home.
Because all of my family members were open-minded, when I joined the robotics team, they encouraged me and did not humiliate me. On the robotics team, I have learned not only coding but also teamwork. It increased my confidence, and my social relations became very strong.
I use the internet for educational purposes. For example, I use the internet to search about coding, new robots, new technology in the world, and new inventions and discoveries. I think older people mostly use it for communication.
Many people in Afghanistan think that Afghan girls and women are weak and incapable. They think they cannot be good leaders or push Afghanistan towards progress and development. However, in my opinion, this belief of Afghan people is very wrong. Afghan women have many achievements in different fields and are successful.
Currently there is a crisis in Afghanistan. Peace is not stable. Killings and suicide bombings happen a lot, and this is the reason that Afghanistan cannot have a better future. When we travel to foreign countries with the team, the girls of those countries have many facilities. They are better off both mentally and psychologically. I want the condition of Afghanistan to be suitable, and all the girls here to be complete, both mentally and psychologically, and have facilities in their working field.
Afghanistan is my country. I want to stay here forever. I learn and study because I want to build Afghanistan in the future. In the near future, I want to start at one of the American universities and be able to continue my higher education. I want my education to be on a very high level to be able to serve Afghanistan in the future.
Being seen in social pages or social media or news channels has caused some unique changes in our lives. For example, when I leave home, many people come near me, and they know me. Due to this, I have to stay away from them, and it makes me happy.
My life is full of achievements. I do not have any unrealized desires.
My father was a mechanic, and I have dealt with machinery since my childhood. I became interested in the robotics team, took an exam with 150 other people, and, fortunately, I was selected. Joining the robotics team was a little difficult for me because it is a completely new field to Afghan traditional society. I had to convince my family. My mother is a homemaker. One of my paternal aunts is a doctor, and the second one is an engineer. All of my maternal aunts are teachers, except one, who is a doctor. All of the women in my family have the permission to work in their relevant field or to continue their studies.
When I joined the team, I knew nothing about programming, but now I know many programming languages, including Java and Python. The change I see in myself is that I have become more responsible, my confidence level has increased. I gained experience and became the captain of the robotics team. I am proud that all the girls in our team are below 18 years old. I am proud that we were able to bring great achievements to our country that is famous for war and insecurity.
The misconception that people have about the robotics team of Afghanistan is that they think we do not make these things, that we import these things completely made and packed from abroad. This is completely wrong. All the robots we make are from raw materials. We build them ourselves and have only one or two mentors that help us.
In the first team, there were girls not allowed to join our team, but when our achievement was published in social media, their families saw it and allowed their daughters to join. Social media plays an important role in conveying the voice of our achievement to the whole world. For example, if there was no social media in our first journey, we would not have been able to get U.S. visas.
When our team went to other countries and participated in competitions, I noticed that other countries had a lot of equipment and many laboratories. This was interesting for me, and I wish that we had similar equipment and laboratories in Afghanistan, so we could work on our robots in a more advanced manner.
When I grow up, my goal is to become a mechanical engineer. The thing that makes me concerned about the future is the continuation of Afghanistan’s traditional community. We still have families that are very fanatic, do not even let their daughters study, and think that girls should always stay at home and do the chores.
If I have the opportunity, or if the situation in Afghanistan gets more insecure, I will go to another country on a temporary basis and learn more about STEM and artificial intelligence, return to Afghanistan, and deliver what I have learned to the young and hardworking generation. Nothing good is supposed to happen to us. Only we can make good things happen to us, and therefore we must work hard.
When I realized that there is a place for learning computer science, robotics, and software, I became eager to participate because, at that time, there was no place teaching these sciences in Herat. Most of the women in my family are educated. My mom is a physics teacher, one of my uncles is a computer teacher, and my second aunt has studied law. Three of my maternal aunts are medical students and doctors, and my other two maternal aunts are studying computer science. Convincing my family was not difficult because all of them are education enthusiasts and want us to learn different sciences.
In the two years since I became a member of the robotics team, I have learned how to create software, how to make a game, and different programming languages. I also learned how to work hard for a common goal until we reach it. The important thing is that we have perseverance for that path. I am proud that I can serve my community and be active in this field.
We use the internet mostly for learning, awareness, helping others, resolving problems with our friends, raising our knowledge level, and showing our achievements. We show our achievements to encourage other girls. In the future, I would like to work in my current field of programming and software. With software, I can build my dream world and have the biggest achievements, despite limited facilities.
People think that Afghanistan is a country of war, blasts, and killings. We must not terrify ourselves and do not think about negative things always. Sometimes there still exists a fear that makes us concerned that the past history of Afghanistan will repeat, and women will not reach their goals and dreams. Sometimes we are terrified. I try to remove that fear, to not think about it, and work hard for my goals.
I am hopeful that there will always be security and peace. All of us hope that one day Afghanistan will join the list of developed countries. If there are hurdles on our way, and we cannot reach our educational goals, we may leave Afghanistan on a temporary basis, study our favorite fields, and return to Afghanistan and deliver our knowledge to our people.
Our biggest regret is that the facilities available for us are incomplete, because of human capital flight from Afghanistan. Education in foreign countries is very advanced compared to Afghanistan. Girls there can study their favorite fields and have a one hundred percent chance of reaching their goals. The new Afghan generation is a different generation than the past. This generation is after learning.
In life, I am satisfied with each and every thing I have done, whether good or bad, because experiences make a human more complete. I work even harder for my future with each passing day. I am not supposed to be afraid because I will reach a future that awaits me.