Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team frantically trying to flee Taliban – CNET


Members of the Afghan all-girls robotics team work with their robot in the practice area between 2017 FIRST Global Challenge competitions in Washington, DC.

Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

An all-girls robotics team in Afghanistan is frantically trying to escape the country in the wake of the Taliban seizing control. 

“These girls are extremely terrified,” New York-based international human rights lawyer Kimberley Motley told the Canadian Broadcast News on Sunday. The girls on the team want to come to Canada to complete their education, and Motley is trying to help them. 

“They’re in Herat, where now in the universities, they’re turning girls away,” Motley said. “They’re telling girls, ‘Don’t come back to the university.’ Women are showing up for work and are being turned away. They’re seeing this and watching tearfully as their city is crumbling.” 

Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

The Taliban captured the girls’ hometown of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city and a strategic provincial capital, as fighters approached the capital of Kabul. Taliban fighters took control of Kabul Sunday, all but officially sealing their takeover of the whole country. This NBC video shows members of the militant group rushing past Herat’s historic blue mosque toward government buildings. 

Afghan tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob started the Afghan Girls Robotics Team in 2017. Mahboob heads the Digital Citizen Fund, which runs classes for girls in STEM and robotics. 

Members of the team, who range in age from 12 to 18, have overcome war and other hardships to pursue their love of engineering and robotics and strike a blow for national pride. They’ve made global headlines as a symbol of a more progressive Afghanistan. 

This CNET video shows them accepting the silver medal for “courageous achievement” in a 2018 international robotics competition. Other teams had four months to build their robots, but the team from Afghanistan, twice denied visas into the US until a late intervention by the Trump administration, had only two weeks to build and ship their ball-sorting bot to Washington, DC. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, the team worked on a low-cost ventilator using old car parts

Motley says she fears for the girls’ futures now that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, leaving the Taliban in power and parts of the country in panic and chaos. 

“Unfortunately, what’s been happening to little girls over this last week is that the Taliban has literally been going from door to door and taking girls out and forcing them to become child brides. We are very, very concerned of that happening with this Afghan Girls Robotics Team, these girls that want to be engineers, they want to be in the AI community. They dare to dream, to succeed.” 

As my CNET colleague Katie Collins reports, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has over the past two days taken to Twitter to say Taliban soldiers have been ordered not to enter people’s homes and has called reports that soldiers are forcing young girls into marriage as “poisonous propaganda.” The story Shaheen is telling on Twitter is at odds both with news reports from the ground in Afghanistan and the fear expressed by Afghan citizens. 

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