Nine members of Afghanistan’s only all-girls robotics team were among those flown out of Kabul to Doha in August 2021. The girls have since found a new home at Qatar Foundation’s (QF) Education City, currently enrolled in the Academic Bridge Program, they hope to be ready to apply for university later this year.
On the occasion of The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, four members of the group spoke about their journey, their dreams, and their aspirations.
“For us, science is hope and the way to a bright future,” said 19-year-old Somaya Faruqi, captain of the team and one of the first members that joined the team when it was formed in 2017.
Faruqi’s father was a car mechanic, and seeing him work on cars is what got her interested in robotics. “Being the oldest among my siblings, I would help him every chance I got,” she said, making it clear that her interests were non-conventional for Afghan girls ever since she was a child.
“Afghan dreamers” is the unofficial name the team has given themselves. All four girls are the first girls in their families to study science – a first they aren’t particularly proud of. They stress that it wasn’t that the generations before them didn’t want to study science, it’s more that they didn’t have access to it.
“We hope for a time when no other girl is the first in their family to get an education, whether it’s in STEM or otherwise,” said 16-year-old Florence Pouya. From a young age, Pouya liked attempting to repair machines around her house, “when there wasn’t anything to repair, I would take machines apart and build them back,” she said.
The girls excitedly talk over each other when asked what robots they are currently working on.
“An agricultural robot that will assist farmers in harvesting crops; a robot that can detect land mines; a UVC disinfection robot; and an eye-movement controlled wheelchair,” they said.
It is clear that despite having left Afghanistan, the girls are still very much focused on its problems. “If not us, who else will solve its problems?” they said with determination. The group hopes to open a STEM school in Afghanistan.
There isn’t an ounce of doubt when they say they will return to Afghanistan after they finish higher education. They think no country needs them like Afghanistan does. “Every other country already has thousands of robotic engineers, over there we are one more among the thousands, but in our country, we will be the first,” said 18-year-old Elham Mansouri, whose interest in robotics came from watching sci-fi documentaries.
“Growing up in Afghanistan, we didn’t have any local women in robotics that we could look up to. The journey felt so much harder because there was no one around who’d been on it. Someone who said – it’s difficult, but I did it and so can you. Hopefully, we will become the role models we didn’t have,” 15-year-old Shabnam Noorzai, the youngest member of the group, said.
Commenting on why women must have an equal part to play in science, Faruqi said: “Women make up approximately 50 percent of the global population, the statistic is similar for Afghanistan. If 50 percent of a country’s population is not able to contribute, what a wasted opportunity and what a massive loss, not just for the country but the world too.”
Despite the difficult circumstances that led them to Qatar, the group has now settled well, spending their evenings playing football in QF’s Oxygen Park and hopping on the metro on weekends to visit various landmarks. Their favorite memory here is the first time they went to the robotics lab at Texas A&M University at Qatar – a QF partner university.
“We were in shock. We just kept looking around. It was like being in dreamland. There were so many tools and so much equipment. The tools for which we would have to travel to other cities back home are available in such abundance here. Our minds have been buzzing with ideas now that we have much more easy access to tools,” said Pouya.
The girls said that despite the conditions that brought them here, they are ever so grateful for the opportunity to study at a world-class campus in Education City. Mansouri said: “Being in Qatar and at QF has allowed us to push our limits, to dream bigger and strive to be the change we wish to see.”
When asked what message they have for girls looking to pursue science, particularly those that may face cultural challenges. The unanimous message is to stay persistent.
“Keep knocking on whatever door it is that is stopping you, it will eventually open. And, if it doesn’t, break the door but don’t turn back and walk away,” said Faruqi.
Mansouri added: “We can’t go back to the times that our mothers lived in, it is us – the youth – that have the power to bring change and ensure that the future is different from the past.”
Focused on their goals and ever-growing ambition, the girls say sometimes they can’t help but miss home and wish things were different.
Noorzai, the youngest among the group said: “I am only 15 years old. I had to leave behind my family, my friends, my home and my country, all just to have access to good quality education and pursue my interest in robotics. As grateful as I am for the opportunity, it also feels like too big a price to pay and not a choice any child – boy or girl – should have to make.”
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