Engineering researcher helps Afghan women keep learning and working in STEM

After fleeing her home country in 2021, Zahra Nazari is now an ambassador for a global movement to narrow the digital gender gap for women.


Zahra Nazari is pursuing her postdoctoral research in machine learning at the U of A — and helping other Afghan women pursue opportunities in STEM through her role as an ambassador with the global organization Women in Tech. (Photo: Supplied)

Under cover of night, Zahra Nazari was forced to flee from Afghanistan in the fall of 2021 as the Taliban revolution made her life impossible.

With a doctorate in machine learning and artificial intelligence, she had been teaching at Kabul Polytechnic University while working as an executive board member for the country’s telecom regulatory authority. It all came crashing down when the Taliban put severe restrictions on the work and education women were allowed to pursue.

Nazari began looking for opportunities elsewhere, and after receiving offers for post-doctoral studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Alberta, she sought refuge in Pakistan. She chose the U of A mainly because the visa process was faster and easier, but she’s now convinced she made the right choice.

“After getting to know some Canadian people and becoming familiar with the environment, I feel very lucky,” says Nazari.

A passion for AI — and advocacy

She is now a postdoctoral researcher working under Petr Musilek of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She spends half her time in his Energy Digitization Lab, working on applying machine learning techniques to the energy sector, particularly for charging electric vehicles.

The rest of her day is spent working on a project closest to her heart: helping women trapped in Afghanistan continue their education in STEM fields and find remote work online. This year she successfully applied to run an Afghanistan chapter of an organization called Women in Tech, a global movement to help women narrow the gender gap and gain access to the benefits of technology.

After launching the chapter last February, she is now its official ambassador, fighting for the digital rights of women in a country that ranks among the lowest in the world on the Gender Equality Index, at 157th of 162 countries.

Nazari has already made progress. She’s enrolled 10 Afghan girls in artificial intelligence and Python certificate courses at the European Business University of Luxembourg and is collaborating with Arizona State University to help train Afghan women for jobs in fields such as coding and web design through a scholarship program.

“When we announced our scholarship, 150 Afghan girls applied,” says Nazari. “When I saw their documents — English proficiency and university transcripts — it was clear they are very talented, smart girls.”

“Hopeful and energetic”

Saleha (who chooses to remain anonymous) is one of those girls. A student of computer science at Kabul Polytechnic University before the Taliban came to power, she describes those days in email correspondence as “the most useful and joyful of my life.”

Once young women were forbidden from pursuing education, “depression, frustration, and incarceration were problems I struggled with every single day,” she says. “I could not go outside for almost a month.”

With the help of Nazari’s Women in Tech program, Saleha is now “as hopeful and energetic as I was during university. I feel positive joining this class and doing my best to receive a great result.

“We face a wrong belief that women are not as talented as men in STEM subjects. The programs Dr. Nazari delivers can change that idea and provide educational and online job opportunities for Afghan women.”

After finishing her final semesters, Saleha has finally graduated from university through the European Business University and is working to improve her English proficiency in pursuit of a master's degree.

“One day when I am qualified enough, I will join Women in Tech Afghanistan and play my role in facilitating women’s lives,” she adds.

Bridging the digital gender divide

Nazari has so far recruited 150 members from within Afghanistan to her chapter, hosting webinars on how to use social media for success, why women should go into STEM fields and how to freelance remotely.

“In university I knew many girls who were excited to learn about AI,” says Nazari. “They know how to code, but since the Taliban took over, they don't have any options.

“When they take STEM courses online, they are very happy. We have a WhatsApp group, and every day we are communicating, talking about problems and trying to find solutions.”

Although 3G networks cover more than 85 per cent of Afghanistan and more than a third of the population has access to the internet and smart devices, more than 90 per cent of women are digitally illiterate and have no access to the internet, she says, even those who are students.

Since internet access is one of the biggest hurdles women face in her country, Nazari is now reaching out to other organizations, such as Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Classrooms Without Walls, to find solutions.

To help Afghan women protect themselves, Nazari will host a webinar on cybersecurity later this month, demonstrating how to use proxy social media accounts to avoid detection by the Taliban. “Many don't like to use the internet because of security problems,” she says.

“We have some Afghan girls who have already graduated; they have their documents but they don't have a passport and can’t leave the country. For that group, I'm trying to find opportunities to continue their master's degrees online.”

Nazari also plans to conduct research on the digital gender divide in her country, identifying ways to increase women’s access to the internet and digital technologies, and the educational and work opportunities it can provide.

“Zahra is using her expertise in computer science and digital transformation to help women in Afghanistan access some of the digital tools that we take for granted,” says Musilek.

“The hope is that, over time, this will allow greater participation of women in Afghan society and speed up the development process of this impoverished country.”