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Coding a Revolution

Tue, Mar 20, 2007

Press

Foreign Policy / By Daria Vaisman

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images - Islamic Code: Female programmers in Middle East countries such as Iran and Syria are far ahead of their Western counterparts.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images - Islamic Code: Female programmers in Middle East countries such as Iran and Syria are far ahead of their Western counterparts.


Three years ago, Iran decided to run its government computer system on open-source software. The Islamic Republic had long relied on pirated copies of Microsoft’s software, a result of the U.S. embargo that forbids American companies from providing technical support to Iran. Officials in Tehran said the switch would free them from another form of U.S. hegemony. But they probably never guessed it would also give Iran one of the most advanced corps of female coders anywhere in the world.
A recent European Union survey found that only 1.5 percent of European open-source coders are female. Not so in Iran, where, by some estimates, half of all software engineers coming out of the country’s universities are women. Of the three coders who developed Iran’s first official open-source project, two were women.

What’s behind the rise of women in Iran’s open- source movement? With the restrictions put on women in the Middle East, technology is an attractive option for those who want a career. Technological work, and coding in particular, can be done from home, allowing ambitious women to become well-known within their industry without becoming taboo in their communities. “They feel freer, and the anonymity allows for career choices that are more serious and more interesting,” says Mahnaz Afkhami, an Iranian women’s rights activist.

Similar patterns are now emerging elsewhere in the Middle East. In Syria, which is also under a U.S. embargo, women are estimated to make up at least 50 percent of the coding workforce. In many ways, it’s no coincidence. Women in both countries consistently score well in math and science. For Iranian female coder Mahsa Mojtahedi, open-source coding was a natural career choice. It “gives me a lot of opportunities — and good offers,” she says. It’s one instance in which technology could be trumping tradition.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Muslim Women

"The most taxing contradiction [Muslim women] face casts the demands of living in the contemporary world against the requirements of tradition as determined and advanced by the modern Islamist world view. At the center of this conflict is the dilemna of Muslim women’s human rights – whether Muslim women have rights because they are human beings, or whether they have rights because they are Muslim" - Faith and Freedom: Introduction

"To the extent that Islam, defined and interpreted by traditionalist "Muslim" men, is allowed to determine the context and contour of the debate on women's rights, women will be on the losing side of the debate because the conclusion is already contained in the premise and reflected in the process. This is the heart of the moral tragedy of Muslim societies in our time." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

“Islam is not the problem. Rather it is the misuse of Islam by interpreting it to fit the needs of the partriarchal order - the powers that be - and the privileges that one gender has held over the other.” - How are women working to eliminate violence against women in Muslim-majority societies?

Quotables – Technology

"[Modern information technology] has the potential to empower women in ways unprecedented in the social and cultural evolution of human history" - Making IT Our Own: Introduction

"The new information technology, indifferent to human suffering, does not accommodate humane needs unless we harness it and make it do so." Leading To Choices

"We must be bold and creative, our feet firmly grounded in the realities that surround us, but our gaze aimed at the lofty possibilities that our advancements in science and technology promise and that our growth as a global society is only beginning to comprehend." - Toward A Compassionate Society

“International movement building in the 21st century and involvement of youth in advocacy will be made possible largely through technology" - Engendering IT Tools