Low literacy rates. High rates of sexual violence. Maternal mortality. Domestic abuse. Forced marriage. Afghanistan has long been one of the most difficult places to be a woman, and despite great progress since the days of Taliban domination, legislation designed to protect women and give them civil rights has been fought at every turn by some who claim it is “un-Islamic.”
One small group of Afghan women, however, is finding freedom and self-determination through the mastery of a simple machine: the bicycle.
The Women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan is only a few years old. Its 10 members, most between the ages of 17 and 22, have yet to finish a race. But they are determined to persevere in their chosen sport despite multiple barriers, and are aiming to ride in the 2020 Olympics.
Men driving by insult them. Boys along the road throw rocks at them. Sometimes they don’t have enough money to buy adequate food to fuel their rides. Every day, they are reminded that it is taboo in Afghan society for a woman to get on a bicycle. And still they ride.
“They tell us that it is not our right to ride our bikes in the streets and such,” says Marjan Sidiqqi, one of the young women on the team. “We tell them that this is our right and that they are taking our right away. Then we speed off.”
Sidiqqi is featured in Afghan Cycles, a film in production about the team, slated to be completed next year. One of the producers of the film is Shannon Galpin, an activist and National Geographic Adventurer who has been working in Afghanistan trying to promote women’s rights since 2006.
Galpin, who is also a mountain biker, says that when she first started riding in the country in 2009, she wasn’t aware of any Afghan women who dared to break the biking taboo. It was only in 2012 that she found out that a few women had formed the national team, with the support of their families and of the coach of the men’s team.
“He’s amazing,” says Galpin, whose memoir, Mountain to Mountain, comes out later this month from St. Martin’s Press. “It’s a country where men are the gatekeepers, and you meet these men who are breaking the mold. They are making this revolution happen by facilitating this opportunity.”
Galpin says that for the generation of girls coming of age in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, bicycling is another manifestation of the freedom to be an educated person in the society. “Young women who are in university and high school, young women who are educated, their families have promoted that and helped that happen,” she says. “These young women look at it very cut and dry: ‘My brother can ride a bike, why can’t I?’ They’re cognizant that they have this right.”
Through her nonprofit, Mountain2Mountain, Galpin has been helping to raise funds and get sponsorships for the team. She’s also been connecting with a couple of other small groups of girls and women in more remote areas around the country who have been learning to ride for transportation. If women were allowed to ride bikes, Galpin points out, it would open up educational and health care opportunities, especially in rural areas.
The taboo, however, remains strong, with women on bikes being told that they dishonor their families. Galpin points out that those same types of insults were leveled at women in the United States and Europe at the dawn of the bicycling age, when two-wheelers were embraced by many in the nascent women’s rights movement. “They were called immoral or promiscuous,” she says. “It’s essentially the same insult in a completely different culture.”
There is real risk involved for the Afghan women riders of today, acknowledges Galpin, and she worries about the potential for harm coming to team members. She knows, however, that this is a challenge they have gone into without any illusions.
Fawzia Koofi, the most prominent female politician in Afghanistan, talked to Galpin about the dangers the team faces. “One of the things she said about risk is that whoever’s on the front lines is stepping up to assume that risk,” says Galpin. “She said, Afghans know that risk much better than you do. They live it daily. These girls take those risks going to school. They know it, they live it, they’re making the conscious choice.”
Galpin says her group is trying to help mitigate the risks by providing opportunities to train on roads in safer areas. The team might even take a trip to ride in Europe at some point, hoping to get closer to their Olympic goal. Reaching that milestone would be a source of national pride, and might change the way women’s cycling is viewed in the nation as a whole.
“A winner is a person who can make Afghanistan proud and be a hero here,” says one young woman in the film’s trailer. “We cannot become a hero by sitting at home.”
“Biking with fear and trembling doesn’t work,” Siddiqi adds with a smile. “When getting on a bike, one must throw these feelings to the wind.”