Biking Toward Freedom With the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team

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How the bicycle has become a tool for radical activism in Afghanistan.

By Deni Ellis Béchard

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Members of the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team ride past a military checkpoint outside Kabul. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

In the spring of 2014, I flew from Kabul, where I had been living, to Bamyan, a mountainous province in central Afghanistan. I had come to photograph the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team, a dozen young women who, the following year, the Italian parliament would nominate for the Nobel Peace Prize in celebration of the bicycle as a vehicle for social justice.

At more than 8,300 feet above sea level, the city of Bamyan is the traditional home of the Hazara, a people believed to be descended from those who arrived with the Mongol invasion. During Taliban rule, they suffered ethnic cleansing for practicing Shia Islam (unlike the Sunni Taliban), and since the American occupation, their province — home to Afghanistan’s first national park — has become one of the safest and most welcoming to outsiders.

The cycling team had come to Bamyan from Kabul with the support of their American trainer, Shannon Galpin, and her Colorado-based organization, Mountain2Mountain, for several days of intensive training. Unlike in the rest of Afghanistan — even in the country’s relatively liberal capital — where women’s cycling is embattled, the Afghan women could ride here safe from abuse.

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The team rides in Bamyan with trainer Shannon Galpin. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

In Afghanistan, the bicycle has long been taboo for women. Many men believe women lack the strength and intelligence to ride, that they shouldn’t leave the home, and that the bike seat threatens their hymens (and hence their marriageability). But as Galpin explains, “Freedom of movement is at the heart of cycling’s controversy.” For many Afghans, women’s biking — especially those without a male chaperone — conjures fears of promiscuity, and even more open-minded men recognize the danger of venturing out on such a provocative mode of transportation. According to Human Rights Watch, Afghans perceive women’s cycling as worse than driving and only a step above morality crimes like adultery, for which they can be jailed.

And yet few other activities hold as much promise for benefiting the lives of women and their families as bicycling does. It is precisely this terrifying mobility that makes women’s cycling so important in Afghanistan — a country where more than 60 percent of the population is illiterate, few people have access to health care, only 15 percent of women participate in the workforce, and the national unemployment rate — measured as the number of people actively looking for work as a percentage of the overall labor force — is a staggering 40 percent. If popularized, the bicycle could allow women to get education, health care, and jobs, and to help their families out of poverty.

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The team on a highway in Bamyan Province. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

Each of the bicycle’s benefits would have a ripple effect: Educated women could become teachers and have the means of transportation to reach remote villages where girls, after puberty, cannot receive instruction from men. Women could become midwives and visit distant homes where their skills would decrease childhood mortality (Afghanistan has the highest rate in the world) and maternal mortality (among the highest). Women could also visit doctors themselves and take control of their health. And their children would benefit, since mothers could have greater influence over their education, health, and material needs.

Ironically, for Westerners, women’s bicycling has become so normalized that they often fail to see how radical and transformational it can be, and, as a result, Western non-governmental organizations don’t fund it as well as they do many other initiatives. For many Westerners, the bicycle represents health, leisure, and, in some cases, a sustainable means of transportation. They have largely forgotten how crucial it was in the battle for women’s rights in their own countries. In the late 1800s, Susan B. Anthony argued that cycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” and is “the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

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Team member descending through the mountains of Bamyan Province. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

As Galpin notes, the young Afghan women who choose to cycle are defying repressive tradition in a way that we can no longer conceive of in the West. This is defiance of social constraints on par with America’s first abolitionists, civil rights activists, and suffragettes. “This is not ‘just’ a sport,” she explains. “This is revolutionary. These women aren’t simply pushing boundaries the way other women do in Afghanistan by going to school and getting a job outside the home. They are doing something on par with running for political office, or joining the army or police force.”

Galpin illustrates her point by explaining how, on training rides in Kabul, the team members frequently receive threats from men, are called “whores,” have stones thrown at them or fired from slingshots, or are forced off the street. During one ride, a male motorcyclist deliberately ran down one of the cyclists, injuring her. Even recruiting new team members requires diplomacy: long meetings with the families to explain that cycling is acceptable for most women around the world, including those in Iran and Pakistan. By choosing to let their daughters ride, families are at risk not only of criticism from relatives and their community, but also of allegations that their daughters are promiscuous and unfit for marriage. Far worse, they have to accept that their daughters might become the victims of violence.

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Afghan women practicing karate in Kabul. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

Historically, Afghans have had a positive relationship with sports. They are fiercely proud of their male bodybuilders, cricket players, and soccer teams. Even before the American invasion, the Taliban regime was relatively lenient toward sports, while strictly monitoring almost all other aspects of life. Even the most conservative interpretations of Islam generally encourage athletic activity, so long as dress codes are respected.

Since the fall of the Taliban, more and more Afghan women have gotten educations, entered the workforce, and tested their freedom by living increasingly independent lives. They participate in sports in ever-greater numbers, with Kabul television stations airing tournaments and nudging the highly conservative society to be more accepting of female athletes. Women have begun skiing, playing basketball, and doing karate, among many other sports. These athletes testify to the confidence they have gained, as well as their increased physical strength, mental clarity, and sense of courage and self-determination.

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Afghan women playing basketball in Kabul. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

Though other athletes face opprobrium and the occasional threat, and must gain the explicit support of their fathers and male family members before participating, their activities are largely done indoors or away from the public eye, and are in no way as controversial as cycling, which places rapidly changing gender roles on display. Cycling has become even more dangerous with the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, as well as the increase in anti-American and anti-Western sentiment after an occupation that has dragged on for 15 years. Activities perceived as the result of foreign influence run the risk of becoming lightning rods for the larger cultural rage.

The goal of the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team and its trainer, Shannon Galpin, has been to normalize women’s cycling in the eyes of Afghans. By working toward eventual Olympic participation, Galpin believes that creating national pride around the women athletes will encourage more families to let their daughters participate in sports. If the team can train and compete regularly, positive attention may create opportunities for women that traditional women’s rights work and activism cannot: “Can you imagine the small team of Afghan athletes, dressed in red, green, and black, rallying their nation?” Galpin marvels. “This has the potential to change cycling from a taboo into symbol of national pride … and, in doing so, begin to change their people’s perception of women.”

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Team trainer Shannon Galpin mountain biking in Bamyan Province. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

The team’s activism has already gained global attention, and, in 2015, the Italian Parliament nominated the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team for the Nobel Peace Prize. They wanted to draw attention to the bike as an instrument of social justice, and they chose the team as the ideal representatives for its potential to create change.

During her years supporting the team, Galpin has cycled in several Afghan provinces to stimulate conversation with local people about the ability of women to ride. She has supported the team and bike clubs by bringing in or purchasing numerous bicycles. All the while, she has struggled with corruption in Afghan sporting institutions while nurturing the young women’s ambitions. And in order to raise funds for the team, she has shared their stories, which has the side effect of putting these women in danger. “Increased attention in the digital age,” she says, “when the Taliban have Twitter accounts, is not necessarily a good thing for these women…. [But] in a time with little support for non-profits, people need to see that change is possible….”

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Young Afghan girls gather to watch Shannon Galpin ride. (Photo: Deni Ellis Béchard)

During the days I spent with the team, I was struck most by their enthusiasm. The young women, some of whom had learned to ride less than a year before, bicycled the steep highways out of Bamyan, through ravines and onto broad valleys 10,000 feet high, between slopes still blanketed with snow. During breaks, they laughed and chatted among themselves, or took photos against the backdrops of distant mountain ranges. They had trained for months, running in tight circles along the insides of their walled yards at homes when they couldn’t cycle. Now, they expressed their pride and even their disbelief that they had learned to do something that they had once believed would always be forbidden for them. Mariam, the team leader, said that, when people harass them and say they shouldn’t be allowed to ride bikes: “We tell them that this is our right and that they are taking our right away. Then we speed off.”

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