A team of six teenage Afghan girls has been prevented from fully participating in an international robotics competition, because they could not get visas to the United States. Their robot will still be able to compete, and the girls can engage by video. The reasons for the decision are not public, but it has infuriated leading tech figures and counter-terrorism experts, and critics allege it will undermine science education and relations between the West and Muslim nations.
The FIRST Global Challenge is an opportunity for high school students worldwide to develop skills in robotics. Teams from more than 100 countries will be grouped together in threes to form alliances to solve engineering challenges such as storing and filtering water. The aim is to develop skills not only in programming and robotic design, but in co-operating with strangers from other nations.
An all-girl team from three high schools in Herat, western Afghanistan, hoped to take part and designed a robot capable of sorting balls into buckets to prove their suitability. “We want to develop and explore our minds and creativity and maybe unveil the genius inside of each one of us,” the team's statement reads. The materials other teams used as the basis for their robots were held up by US customs, so the Afghan girls practiced building home-made motorized cars out of cardboard and sticky tape.
One-week visas for entry into the United States were required, and the girls twice made the dangerous journey to Kabul to be interviewed at the US Embassy. Twice they were rejected. This was despite their interviews having been organized by Roya Mahboob, founder of software company Citadel, with the team mentored by students from Carnegie Mellon University. Mahboob has stated that the girls were devastated, telling Forbes they were “crying all day”.
After months of checking, the US State Department appears to have accepted that the robot the girls were eventually able to construct will not suddenly shift from sorting balls into buckets to full terminator mode, and has allowed their creation to take part.
On the event's Facebook page, First Global president and former congressman Joe Sestak issued a statement, expressing deep sadness, but refusing to criticize the State Department, and thanking their approval of visas for the majority of teams, including those from countries often barred entry to the United States.
Others have not been so restrained, with many taking to Twitter to pour scorn on the decision.
The Gambian team's visas were also rejected, and days before they need to leave, several other countries remain in limbo. The Afghan and Gambian robots will be operated by Americans with ancestry in those countries, under remote supervision from the teams in the countries of origin.
After the destruction of the World Trade Center, many commentators noted discrimination against women, particularly in education, in the countries from which the attacks were coming. Giving girls a chance of an education was a good thing in its own right, they argued, but also might lead to a reduction in violence in the long term.
Fears that this might work may be the reason terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from physics exams in 2014. Supporters of interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan often promoted increased educational opportunities for girls as one of the major justifications.
Despite this, school enrollments fell substantially in Herat between 2005 and 2011, and literacy is just 25 percent (16 percent for women), so these girls were particularly lucky to get an education.
The State Department does not release reasons for its visa denials, so it's not clear whether the girls were considered potential terrorists, or thought likely to try and settle in America. Since they would have been flying in, their luggage would have been thoroughly checked, and a week is not a long time for people new to a country to acquire weapons or find safe places to live, particularly while engaged in a demanding science competition. Statistically, terrorism, particularly in the West, is overwhelmingly conducted by men, so even a random group of Afghan women would not be particularly high-risk.
Moreover, in a country where the Taliban threaten schoolgirls with acid attacks, female STEM students are seldom friends of extremists.
On the other hand, the decision has sent a message, not only to the girls themselves but to all Afghans, that no matter how much they achieve, America is not likely to accept them, even temporarily. The value of this as a recruitment tool is unlikely to be missed by extremists.