In Gilgit, a rural region of north Pakistan, Shaheen I-Tech Lab is living proof that the internet and feminism go hand-in-hand. Created exclusively for women, the computer lab provides a safe, productive, and collaborative space to access the internet, free of cost.
“Opportunities become available when you become globally interconnected,” cofounder of Shaheen I-Tech Lab, Shaffaq Noor, said. “If women want to learn more about a specific field, nobody can really stop them. I know that they don’t have all of the opportunities, but this lab shows them that anything is possible.”
Across Pakistan, Internet cafés are typically male-dominated and considered unsafe or improper places for girls and women. Gender disparity is prominent in Pakistan; out of 144 countries in the world, Pakistan is rated the second highest in the Global Gender Gap. An entrenched patriarchy limits the mobility of girls and women in public spaces, dictating their choices for schooling, work, and self-presentation. These social barriers manifest themselves in the digital arena.
According to UN Women, Eastern and Southeastern Asia have the largest gender gap globally in terms of women using the internet. Only 28% of women have access to the Internet in comparison to 42% of men. 98.8% of rural women in Pakistan lack access to education, compared to 29.3% of women living in urban areas. Socioeconomic inequality also contributes to accessibility, leaving rural women the most isolated from internet access in the country. Shaheen I-Tech Lab aims to close that gap. Women are welcome regardless of social status, age, or technical skills.
Juggling computer science classes and working at her university’s IT department, Shaffaq opened Shaheen I-Tech Lab in December 2016. Sharing her passion for STEM was a no-brainer – the 23-year-old is always thinking of the connections between her life in the States and the experiences of women in north Pakistan. Shaffaq moved from Pakistan to the States in 2002, and opening the lab in her mother’s hometown of Danyor in Gilgit was a conscious decision.
“I wanted to create a change in my own neighborhood, as it is a place I am familiar with,” Shaffaq told me. “I want to see north Pakistan grow on itself. I want this to be a platform that they use to help their local community and advocate for feminism.”
The lab is a family affair in more ways than one. The idea was sparked when Shaffaq’s sister, Sehar Noor, struggled to complete her college registration online while visiting family in Danyor. She had trouble accessing to the internet, and as a woman, internet cafes weren’t an option. The sisters realized that the internet could empower women in Danyor by breaking down barriers to education, employment, and networking.
Today, the lab includes 10 desktop computers and 7 laptops. The lab is located in Shaheen Degree College, an all-girls secondary school, where students, teachers, and local women can enroll in basic computer skills and word processing classes.
“[The lab] is in a secure area. Only girls are there, so they feel free, without hesitation, and can ask for help,” said Aminah Bader, a computer science lecturer at Shaheen Degree College.
Aminah has worked at Shaheen Degree College since January 2017 and manages the computer lab. She and Shaffaq are regularly collaborating on new courses to offer the students. For example, in January, workshops were held on HTML coding, online courses, resume building, and international and local scholarships. There was also a keynote speaker, Dr. Fatima Qalandarie, who spoke about being raised in north Pakistan and going on to become a doctor in the United Kingdom. Shaffaq says that it was inspiring for women “to see a role model discuss her journey that started from a similar route as theirs.”
Currently, in Shaheen I-Tech Lab, Aminah is teaching courses on typing and Microsoft Office. It is a multi-purposeful space: local women use it for internet searches, teachers use it to supplement lectures, and students use it to complete assignments or research scholarships. Aminah is eager to teach more computer skills and is proud of the progress that the women have made.
“When I started teaching, some students were unable to even turn on the computer,” Aminah said. “Most of the students from secondary didn’t even have email [addresses]; I think, for about 25 students, I made an email ID for them. It was a great challenge for me to make awareness and to [teach them] the basic skills of the computer.”
In March, Shaheen I-Tech Lab was awarded an Awesome Without Borders Grant. Shaffaq will use the funding to buy new equipment and expand course offerings to younger girls so they become more comfortable using technology. Another plan is to move the lab to a different space in the college, so women have more room to meet and collaborate.
Growth, above all, is Shaffaq’s vision. She not only wants Shaheen to thrive, but to open more computer labs for women in north Pakistan. Shaffaq views computer labs as a mechanism for women to become involved in the social, economic, and political developments in Pakistan, and the world at large.