Footage Courtesy of Afghan Cycles.
In a country repeatedly ranked the worst country in the world to be a woman, “I can’t” is a phrase you would expect to hear more often. Afghanistan is a place where girls are attacked with acid while walking to school, where honor killings are still accepted and where women risk their lives to run for political office. Women are told they can’t drive, they can’t go outside without a burqa, they can’t go to school and they can’t ride bikes. Yet there are a group of young women that every day say, “Actually, I can”, and they do it on two wheels. The young women of the Afghan National Cycling Team are determined to change the gender barriers that prevent young women from riding a bike.
When a girl rides a bike in Afghanistan, it’s considered immoral, dishonorable and obscene. More than that, a bike equals freedom and independent mobility, two things these girls are continually told they can’t have. Yet in the past ten years, more and more young women are standing up, challenging conservative traditions and riding bikes in defiance of the gender barriers that have existed for decades.
In 2012, I met the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team, the first women I had heard of riding bikes in Afghanistan. I had been looking for 4 years. In 2013, I brought over 6 bikes and 450 pounds of donated bike gear for the team. Over the next three years, I continued to train with them, coach them, and thanks to Liv, donate over 50 more bikes and crates of equipment. During that time three separate groups of girls have created bike clubs in Afghanistan, two in Kabul and one in Bamiyan, and all started by girls that wanted to ride as a tool for equality and social justice. In 2016, the National Women’s Team was chosen as one of National Geographic Adventurers of the Year and they were attached to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination recognizing the bike as a vehicle for human rights. Huge changes in 4 short years.
They risk their lives and their honor to ride a bicycle, because at some point, someone has to take the first step. As one of the members of the national team, Sadaf so aptly stated in an interview for the documentary, Afghan Cycles, “Change doesn’t happen by sitting at home.” Each time the girls ride in public, people stare, some harass, many smile and shout out encouragement. I remember having rocks thrown at me during a mountain bike ride, and the team has had rocks thrown at them too. But I remember a training ride to the village of Paghman, we were flying downhill and I was riding at the back, ahead of me I saw boys getting ready to throw rocks. I knew there was nothing I could do and I only hoped that the rocks wouldn’t hit their tires and cause a crash. The boys’ arms threw forward and as we all rode by, I saw that they were flowers. The boys were throwing flowers. Many boys I’ve met on rides with the team have told me that they are going to go home and teach their sister to ride a bike. Change is possible, revolutions happen. Every time the girls ride, they show their community and their country, “Actually, I can.”
-Shannon Galpin, founder of Mountain2Mountain, nonprofit partner for the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team.