US Denies Visas to Afghan Girls Robotics Team, Sparks Feminist Protest

An all-girls robotics team from Herat, Afghanistan was denied visas to enter the U.S.


The teenagers risked their lives making the 500-mile journey across Afghanistan twice to interview for visas at the U.S. embassy in Kabul— the site of several recent deadly attacks. Despite their efforts to secure a 7-day visa, the girls were rejected.


The news of the visa denial has sparked feminist protests in the United States. “This makes no sense and is even more outrageous when you consider it is counterproductive to the work of the United States and many women’s organizations who have been fighting for some two decades for the equality of women in Afghanistan,” said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. The Feminist Majority Foundation has conducted a campaign for Afghan Women and Girls since 1997.


The team of six teenage girls has been working for months to build a robot to compete in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition in DC. The competition attracts teams of young students from around the world and aims to engage students by sparking a passion for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).


“We want to develop and explore our minds and creativity and maybe unveil the genius inside of each one of us,” the team wrote on their webpage, showcasing their passion and excitement for STEM.


Facing obstacles at almost every turn, the determined group of Afghan girls has had to overcome great odds to pursue their passions. Teams participating in the global competition were supposed to receive tech materials to build their robots back in March. But the box sent to the Afghan all-girls team was held up for months and never arrived. Instead of giving up, the young engineers improvised and built machines from household materials.


Roya Mahboob, the founder of Citadel Software Company in Afghanistan and one of the sponsors of the team, said when the girls heard the news that their visas had been denied, “they were crying… they’re young and they were very upset.” Mahboob who is a technology entrepreneur and women’s rights trailblazer knows too well the obstacles that women and girls must overcome in Afghanistan, especially in the tech world. In addition to founding Citadel Software Company, she founded a multilingual blog and video site to give women a platform to tell their stories and has plans to build 40 free Internet classrooms across Afghanistan to make the Internet more accessible to female students.


While the U.S. State Department has not commented on the reasons for rejecting the all-girls robotics team, the denial has drawn international attention and condemnation. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders released a statement emphasizing the importance of empowering women, “supporting the educational aspirations of young people, particularly young women, all over the world should be seen as a priority for US foreign policy, not a threat.”


Women for Afghan Women, a grassroots human rights organization dedicated to securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls, has released a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging Tillerson to overturn the decision to deny the visas of six Afghan girls. The letter emphasizes the need for the U.S. to revisit its visa policy towards Afghanistan to ensure the U.S. leads by example both in promoting STEM programs and in its worldwide support of young women seeking educational, technological, and economic empowerment. More than a dozen organizations, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, have signed the letter.


As of now, the Afghan all-girls team will have to watch their robot compete in the challenge through a video link during the July 16-18 event, rather than joining the other teams who were granted visas. Teams from Iran, Syria, and Sudan all received visas, despite being on Trump’s list of countries whose citizens are banned from entry. Mahboob has confirmed that the other teams granted visas were all male, leaving the impression that the Afghan all-girls team was denied visas and discriminated against because of their gender.


Media Resources: The Washington Post 7/4/17; Newsweek 7/1/17; Forbes 6/29/17; BBC 7/5/17; The Guardian 7/5/17; TIME 5/18/13

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