Bikes Not Burqas

“It’s time to stop referring to Afghan women as weak, as helpless.  Its time to refer to Afghan women as strong, catalysts for change.  How can we expect Afghan women to fight if we continue to label them as victims?” 

I said these words at my first TEDx talk two years ago – 9 months before I first met the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team.  I had been working in Afghanistan and was enraged by the way we continue to look at Afghan women, and women like them around the world, as helpless victims that are in need of the West’s support.  These are not victims, although they may be victimized.  These are women of strength and resiliency that need tools, encouragements, and the outlets to use their voice.  2  1/2 years later, the young women I work with in Afghanistan show me every day they are not helpless, they are brave, strong, and fearless.  They simply need tools.  Or in this case, bikes.

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The young women of the Afghan National Cycling Team, and the young women around Afghanistan that are learning to ride bikes for the first time in their country’s history, did not grow up under a burqa.  They matured in the post Taliban decade.  They have taken advantage of opportunities in education, art, sport, and politics.  Many were refugees in Iran and Pakistan and returned here in 2002 and 2003 with their families.  Some stayed here and endured the Taliban’s regime.  Most are in their final years of high school or early years of university, a couple are married.  All are embracing the feeling of freedom that comes on two wheels.

Coming back from Afghanistan yesterday, I was looking back on the past three weeks of training with the team.  Over the past year and half we have been working together, they have matured as cyclists, raced outside of their country, and mentor and recruit new riders nearly every training session. This trip I delivered over 50 racing and mountain bikes from Liv/giant, along with brand new helmets, gear, clothing, along with donated clothing, helmets, and equipment for the men’s team.  We trained in Kabul over several days in various locations, working on fitness and racing tactics ahead of their upcoming invitation to compete at the Asia Cycling Championships in Astana in late May.   I brought the team to the high mountains of Bamiyan for a training weekend on empty, newly paved roads.  I met, and rode with, with the young women that are started to ride bikes themselves to and from the women’s college, thanks to one young woman, Zahra, who learned to ride a bike as a refugee in Iran and is teaching young women to ride as a means of independence.

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These women are the generation of Afghan women that are embracing new experiences, opportunities, without a specific intent of being revolutionary.   They know what they are doing is controversial, but they believe it is their right, that they deserve the same access and opportunities as men, and riding a bike should not be forbidden because of their gender.

I believe sport is a natural gateway to social change.  As these women race and bring national pride to themselves, their families, and to Afghanistan, they are opening the door to allowing girls to ride bikes socially, as transportation.  Increasing access to school or work, protecting their safety, and improving their health.  Creating social justice and gender equality on two wheels.

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This trip I went one step beyond the team’s support.  I spent a morning at the old bazaar to buy bikes for each of the girls to keep at home.  Their first ever bike.  Do you remember your first bike?  The joy and the freedom you felt riding it?  The girls all have a male family member willing to ride with them, but step by step, these women will start to ride their bikes as transportation in Kabul.  The first Afghan women to ever do so.  Crossing the bridge from sport to social independence.

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Every day I worry about these young women.  Not just on the bike, but off.  They are on the front line in a gender and cultural war and yet, if they are willing to ride, to go to school, and to believe in a brighter future, I will do everything I can to support them.  On and off the bike.  Will you?  The support of the team has been minimal and it’s time to step up.  It’s time to support the women that are changing the future of their country one pedal stroke at a time.  We need to get them a minibus and bike rack to safely travel to and from training.  We need to support with stipends the national team so that they don’t have to quit the team to help support their families.  We need to support their racing and travel.  We need to pay for coaching training to build the internal infrastructure for the team to grow and flourish and compete ahead of the 2020 Olympics and future Asia Games.  We also need to continue to support the mens’ team so that they will mentor and support the women’s team and build both teams under the cycling federation as brothers and sisters.

Please help these women pedal a revolution.  Believe that social change can occur one pedal stroke at a time.  Know that these women, and women like them, are the future and their fearlessness needs our support.  Tashakur.

Donate today. www.mountain2mountain.org/donation 

 

photo credits:

Top three – Deni Bechard

Bottom two – Shannon Galpin

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26 thoughts on “Bikes Not Burqas

  1. Thanks you for continuing to share this beautiful story and devote yourself to social change one pedal stroke at a time. I think it’s not only an important mission for these women but also a huge opportunity for the cycling world to contribute to a meaningful cause.

  2. Dede Cummings says:

    Reblogged this on DC Design and commented:
    I am the lucky agent for Shannon Galpin, and this piece is really exciting! Her book comes out September 16, 2014, but you can see it here and order from your indie bookstore in advance! http://www.amazon.com/Mountain-Journey-Adventure-Activism-Afghanistan/dp/1250046645/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

  3. Michelle says:

    This is an amazing story, very inspiring. Have been following the journey on instagram and really hope these women get the help they need to grow as a team and begin to compete

  4. […] more information on the Global Solidarity Ride and our work with the women’s team?  Check out our previous blogs linked to both, and stay tuned for much more information in the […]

  5. Faye says:

    Excelleant article and photos. It’s so encouraging to read something positive about Afghan women for a change!

  6. ditchthebun says:

    This is an amazing story, thank you very much for sharing it. The women look like they are having so much fun in the photos and so happy.

  7. snehasagar says:

    More power to these women !! Respect !!

  8. Reblogged this on Shannon Walsh and commented:
    What an excellent step in the right direction! Wonderful to hear such an organisation exists and to see such an imaginative way of liberating women!

  9. mukhamani says:

    Thank you so much for sharing .

  10. Amazing article and beautiful photos. It is always nice to read about something good happening in the world. Thank you for sharing. :)

  11. Its quite unusual to find an amazing story coming out of Afghan instead of the stories you hear about war and conflict. Its really good to actually read a story that actually shows happiness for the women. They look like they are having so much fun and that they have so much more freedom xx

  12. rubyrites says:

    This was an amazing read, I love your perspective and wish more people held your values and beliefs!

  13. Reblogged this on nzmultisports and commented:
    Awesome.

  14. Hopeje says:

    Bravo! I am now reading a book I bought one year ago. It is now the time it s called “the little shop of Kabul” written by Deborah Rodriguez. Reading your post, echos, with it… Courage, passion of life, hope, faith and freedom. Bravo

  15. Reblogged this on thepoetryplan and commented:
    People live up, or down to your expectations of them. This article is a strong reminder of that and a call to action.

  16. jackrayb says:

    Reblogged this on jackrayb and commented:
    Coast to Coast

  17. gblaw says:

    It is the social change in the universe in deed!

  18. Reblogged this on Triathlon Obsession and commented:
    About the bike or a global movement. These women make me appreciate the fact that I can just jump out my door and ride!

  19. Thank you for sharing!

  20. ameliemelina says:

    Reblogged this on ameliemelina and commented:
    E tempo di smettere di riferirsi alle donne afghane come deboli e inutili, è tempo di riferirsi alle donne afghane come forti e catalizzatrici del cambiamento!

  21. Jgncs says:

    Very impressive. Great shot.

  22. pascalereld says:

    Reblogged this on Thoughts and commented:
    Bikes not burqas

  23. Peyto says:

    I appreciate your distinction between victims and victimized. It is a distinction that is needed in so many areas of society. As a volunteer with Special Olympics I have seen the power of sport as a tool that allows the victimized to liberate themselves. Awesome work!

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