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Fighting Corruption, One Bike at a Time

27AFGHANWOMEN-WEB1-master768Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Yesterday the story of the ongoing corruption and mismanagement and possible abuse in Afghan women’s sports federations finally was published by Rod Nordland of the New York Times, titled Corruption in Afghanistan All but Cripples Women’s Team Sports.  Our founder spoke with Rod several weeks ago when he contacted her about our withdrawl of support for the Afghan Cycling Federation.  She shared with him our experiences and frustrations and discovered he had found proof of some my accusations against Coach Seddiqi and against the cycling federation that had fallen on deaf ears when we had voiced our concerns.

Shannon had confronted Coach Seddiqi last July in Kabul about the corruption and mismanagement, and as we and she have written about in previous blogposts, not only did he deny any mismanagement to her face, he made it worse with the South Asian Championships debacle in India that he didn’t take the girls to (see previous posts), which denied them the chance to race outside of Afghanistan and represent their country.  The Afghan Cycling Federation’s new Secretary General, Fazli Ahmad Fazli, denied any mismanagement and was insulted that I would even mention the word corruption.  He made it clear that our help wasn’t needed, that the accusations were an insult and unfounded, and thus we made it clear that Mountain2Mountain would remove all formal support from the cycling federation effective immediately.

While the NYT article saddens many people that have reached out, it makes me happy to see the systemic abuse of power be exposed so that those in power cannot hide behind each other anymore.  Change doesn’t happen in silence, voices, many voices, must be willing to speak up to challenge corruption.  Even as I write this, I hear news that there may be a new Afghan Olympic Committee President, this despite the continued disputes since the election last year.  Its just another sign of the lack of leadership, stability, and the corruption that has plagued the sporting institutions in Afghanistan from the very top of the food chain, all the way down.  This affects not just the women, but the men’s teams as well….corruption is genderless in Afghanistan.”  – Shannon Galpin

But as in all things in Afghanistan, its usually worse for the women.  When women are forced to remain in structures were the men are in the positions of power, even something as empowering as cycling, or soccer, or cricket, it becomes another source of oppression and entrapment.  The women in Afghanistan may be breaking barriers, but the biggest barrier to women’s sports in that country is ironically the same institutions that are in place to allow women to compete.

Coach Seddiqi was finally removed in an election last month as the President of the Cycling Federation. He was replaced by a man we met in Bamiyan in 2014 during a training camp for the national team we put together, he was the head of the local Provincial Olympic Committee at the time.  Coach Seddiqi has also been fired by the men’s team, but he remains as coach of the women’s team because they are afraid.  Afraid that if they stand up to him, they will lose their only chance to ride, their only chance to compete.  He holds all the control.  And they know it.  Perhaps this NYT’s article gives enough weight for the allegations of mismanagement and corruption that they can feel confident to speak up.

Just last week, we received information that the Coach was intending to sell the remaining donated bikes, we immediately contacted him through a third party and informed him that we were coming to Kabul to meet with him and fully expected that all bikes donated to the federation would be accounted for when we visit.  He cannot operate in the shadows pretending he is a good man, that he is working on behalf of the girls, he is not.  He is working for himself and himself alone.

Looking ahead, we have been working on plans to bypass the corruption and directly support the girls in several ways.  The tentative plan, determined by visas issued by the US government,  is to bring the girls to the US this fall for a training workshop with the hope of creating a future all-Afghan cycling team here in Colorado in 2017 that could support and train these women to become the next generation of leadership for the team in Afghanistan.  This allows us to bypass the majority of the corruption and empower women to be in charge of developing the women’s cycling program.  This has been being planned for many months with an incredible team of cycling professionals who believe in these girls and in their ability to create a two wheeled revolution that puts women in the leadership positions and provide real coaching and training for those that want the opportunity to race.

Beyond that we plan to meet with the Afghan Olympic Committee leadership and the new leadership of the Afghan Cycling Federation, alongside the men’s and women’s team to discuss the future of this sport in Afghanistan.  We will also be speaking with government officials about the state of women’s sports and the Olympic federations in general.  These talks will determine how we continue to support this program and these girls that have had to endure yet another barrier.

In the meantime, a huge thanks to our sponsors, Liv Cycling, Skratch Labs, Osprey Packs, and Hogan Lovells and the individual donors and sponsors that have supported us over the past three years.   In the past three years, three new bike teams and clubs for women have started, Afghanistan saw its first women’s bike races and ‘right to ride’ pubic events, the girls raced in Kazakhstan, and they were recognized by National Geographic Adventurer for their bravery and courage.  This article doesn’t take any of that away – it gives us the ammunition needed to bring change and the fight corruption that impedes the opportunities and dreams of these young women, and all the female athletes in Afghanistan.

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Corruption in Afghan Sports Federations

As we continue to look at ways to support the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team, we delve a bit deeper into the issue of corruption and how it affects all the sports federations, not just cycling.

In an Al Jazeera report last year, a journalist looked at how Afghanistan’s endemic corruption, warlordism, and power politics were beginning to erode Afghanistan’s athletic establishments too.  Corruption weaves its way through every facet of life in Afghanistan, and lies at the heart of the ability or inability for Afghanistan to move forward.

This isn’t just an issue in Afghanistan, “In 2012, the IOC suspended India Olympics Association for failing to comply with the world sports body’s regulations for holding independent elections without the government’s interference. Indian athletes thereby lost the right to compete in any Olympics event under Indian national flag.

Beyond the region all we have to do is look at the recent scandal rocking the international governing bodies of FIFA for soccer, or the UCI with cycling, even the International Olympic Committee itself has been plagued with scandals of corruption in the past. Sports is not immune to corruption, especially not when we are operating in a country where corruption is a daily part of life.

According to research done by Women’s Regional Network, women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India agreed that they find corruption unremarkable because it is so pervasive that they did not think it could change.

We have navigated corruption throughout our eights years of working in Afghanistan, whether it was in the women’s prisons, trying to secure a land donation for a school for the deaf in Kabul, even remote mountain school supplies deliveries were subject to corruption.  It should be no surprise then that our work with Afghan Cycling Federation is not exempt from corruption or mismanagement.  Going further, the majority of the women’s sports federations are controlled by men – perverting opportunities for empowerment through sport subject to the same structures of oppression and misogyny as any other program in the country.  When men control women’s sports federations, the women and girls that participate at the highest levels of Afghan sports find themselves in another form of dependence and potential oppression.  It also creates opportunities for sexual harassment and potential assault to occur without a system to protect the girls.

A recent report about the sex scandals of the USA swimming program in Outside Magazine highlighted that again, this is not endemic to Afghanistan.  If female swimmers in the US are sexually assaulted by their coaches, why would be shocked to see misogyny and corruption play out anywhere else?

The question becomes for us, as an organization that believes in the power of sport to empower young women, and the sport of cycling in particular to catalyze a change in the taboo of women riding bikes, how do we support the athletes affected by this corruption? How do we say ‘NO’ to a corrupt system but still support the girls that risk their lives and their honor to ride a bike?

When we contacted the Afghan Cycling Federation to report recent instances of deliberate corruption and mismanagement with the Coach and the federation, I was rebuked.  When I removed our support of the federation they shrugged it off.  Meanwhile, I looked at how a change of leadership could potentially change support for the girls.  This is slowly happening, after years of control by Coach Seddiqe of both the mens and women’s cycling teams, the Coach has been removed from control of the men’s team.  There are calls for an election to replace him as the President of the Cycling Federation – something he has refused to step down from amid ongoing calls of corruption.  Time will tell if he can also be replaced as the coach of the women’s team.

In the meantime, we have found some solutions and working towards getting the girls serious coaching and training here in the US are putting them into action.  We will return to Afghanistan to meet with the families of the team, the new President of the Afghan Olympic Committee, and the new President of the Cycling Federation in hopes that we can navigate the pervasive corruption that has hamstrung this team, preventing them from racing while parading them around like a dog and pony show to embassies and Kabul organizations that want to congratulate them on their Nobel Peace Prize nomination. They are cyclists that deserve to be coached and to race at every possible opportunity, they deserve to be treated as athletes, not shown off around town like the Coach’s private harem.

For those that have asked, are we giving up?  Absolutely not, in fact the last year has helped develop some very real solutions outside of Afghanistan that can address many of the issues they are faced with.  We will need the support of our community more than ever as we prepare to announce our next steps with the team, and we know that you will love what we have planned.  In the meantime, these girls, and others like them, need to know none of us are giving up on them.

#pedalarevolution

 

 

Necessary Changes

It is with a heavy heart that we officially removed our support of the Afghan Cycling Federation.  After 3 years of working to support the women’s national cycling team I have determined that the mismanagement and corruption of many involved at the Afghan cycling federation cannot be fixed.  Its difficult to come to this conclusion on the heels of the team being recognized as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year and their nomination as part of Bike the Nobel for the Nobel Peace Prize.  It’s a dream come true that these girls are being recognized for their bravery and courage on two wheels.  Yet supporting the infrastructure doesn’t support the girls.  Time and time again, I’ve seen mismanagement and corruption, yet I have tried to work directly to find solutions, discuss future plans, and advocate for the girls.  Mountain2Mountain, myself, and the Afghan Cycles film crew have created a powerful PR machine that has elevated this group of girls into worldwide acclaim.  Press and media have been covering these girls and my work in Afghanistan steadily for the past 3 years and that is ramping up again on the heels of the Nobel Peace Prize nomination.  They are the darlings of the media right now, doing interviews, and sharing their story.

photos by Deni Bechard

Yet in parallel to the success of the team at breaking barriers and inspiring other girls to ride, there is a system of corruption that I can no longer deal with in good conscious.  During the formal announcement of the Peace Prize nominations, the team was supposed to be racing in India at the South Asian Championships.  We sent over racing kits and the funding to get 5 girls there plus the Coach.  Instead, the team got to Dehli and stayed there instead of traveling on to Guhwati.  There they visited Coach’s extended family, he took his new wife to the doctor, and they had one group ride through town.  The girls were denied their chance to race and represent their country because of mismanagement at best, corruption at worst.  This is just the most recent example, there have been many throughout the past three years, this one was simple the most blatant.

There is no effort by the cycling federation in Kabul to support and encourage the other groups of girls that are starting clubs and teams.  Instead these young women that are riding without the safety or direction of anyone but themselves are mocked and ignored.  Girls like Zhara who started teaching girls to ride as a social movement, registered a team with the sports federation and yet is excluded from the federation, and insulted by the Coach.  Instead of understanding that bike clubs only give the federation more strength, that more girls riding strengthens the national team in the long run, the Coach sees them as a threat to his power and control of his fiefdom.

Fiefdoms and power struggles exist throughout Afghanistan, even in the most benign areas like a federation of a sport deemed not worth supporting by the Afghan Olympic Committee.  The previous President of the Afghan Olympic Committee told me directly that it was difficult to get the AOC to even do the paperwork to send the girls to the Asian Games last year in South Korea, even if they were funded, because they are considered a C level sport, and the AOC only wants to support A level sports like football and cricket because they don’t want to look like amateurs.  We fought hard together to get one girl allowed a spot to go.

There is much more to be said about the past 3 years, I intend to focus on the gains.  Since I started working with the team in 2013, they have raced out of their country, been part of training camps where I taught them and the Coach, how to shift, how to draft, and how to ride in a pack.  We discussed nutrition and hydration because the girls and the boys weren’t eating or drinking anything on their rides, and then bonking. Hard.  We discussed a longterm plan, barriers to involvement, and how to expand.  The girls improved, we donated new bikes and helmets with Liv Cycling.  Their story is in two museums as examples of sports diplomacy.  They have been in over a hundred press articles in over 30 countries. They were recognized by National Geographic and the Nobel Peace Prize committee this year.

That said, I am not giving up on the girls.  These girls deserve to be supported and I have determined that the best way to do this is to support them directly.  We will be making an announcement soon about this, and until then we are grateful for everyone who believed in these girls and helped support them over the past three years.  We have to get creative and recognize that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

As this year unfolds, we see their story only spreading more, and with the post production of Afghan Cycles finishing up, their story will soon be told on the big screen.  The future sees a new chapter in this story as we continue to work to support the girls in Kabul, in Bamiyan, and elsewhere to continue to ride, to break barriers, and to believe in their own future for years to come.  Stay tuned, this is going to be good.  #pedalarevolution

 

Border Free Cycling

There is a new bike club in town.  Border Free Cycling Club is the latest bike club to form in Kabul, and its founders hope to focus attention on gender equity by forming a mixed gender bike club.  Its co-founders are Halima and Hoor, a young woman and young man that believe everyone has the right to ride, and bikes can be a tool for gender equality.

The ripples of each action taken in Afghanistan continue to intersect.  Halima helped found the Girl Up bike club that formed in 2014 with Fatima Hadairi who worked with us last summer.  While that club was unable to continue past its initial summer due to leadership when Fatima went back to the United States to go to university.  Two members in particular have created ripples. The first is Nahid, who is now part of the Afghan National Team.  The second, an American university student, Halima has joined forces with fellow peace activist, and a male supporter of gender equity, Hoor Arifi.

They posted an inspiring photo from their first ride.  This is a first step, and we are excited to introduce them to Zahra in Bamiyan and the national team in Kabul as they aim to coordinate efforts beyond racing for gender equity and activism on bikes.

The symbol of Border Free and of the Cycling Club by the same name is a blue scarf that is made by Afghan seamstresses.  Keep an eye out, you’ll be seeing more of these blue scarves.

12541153_515635148616439_681677627797796053_nphoto provided by Border Free Cycling Club

Bike the Nobel

On Friday, the Italian radio station, RAI2 hosted a press conference in Milan, announcing  the formal nomination of the bike for the Nobel Peace Prize.  They launched a campaign months ago to get enough signatures for a nomination.  The really beautiful part?  They chose the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team as the human representation of the bike’s power of social justice and activism.

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The bike has been a vehicle for human rights for over a century, since American women first started riding and soon the bike became the symbol for the suffragette movement.  The Afghan women that dare to ride as part of the national team have shown that the bike equals freedom.

The Nobel Peace Prize nomination recognizes the bravery, the courage, and the ability of these women to take back the streets and their rights on bikes.  These young women, and the women like them now riding in other parts of Afghanistan, are on the front lines of a gender revolution on two wheels.

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A bike relay set off from Milan to carry the nomination to Oslo, Norway to present the nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize committee by bike.  We believe that bikes are a vehicle for social justice, and that they can be tools for gender equity and social activism.  We couldn’t be prouder to see the bike’s recognition and the recognition of the Afghan women that ride.

#pedalarevolution

photo by Deni Bechard

Afghan Cycling US Tour

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We are in the initial stages of bringing several Afghan cyclists to the United States next summer for a cultural exchange and training camp.  We are excited to work with the law firm Hogan Lovells who is helping us with the logistics and has officially come on as a sponsor of the team to assist in the expenses of getting the team to the US for training camps, coaching clinics, and community rides.

The idea?  Expose these young women to cycling at its highest level with trips to Philadelphia to watch a World Championship women’s race, introduce them to top coaches, professional racers, and visit the US Olympic Training Center.  We also plan to have their participation at several Afghan Cycles screenings after it premieres so that they can take the stage and own their own story.

At the same time, we aim to build long term support of these young women in the communities that support cycling and have supported our work in Afghanistan.  This is an opportunity to engage with these young women directly in community rides and some private events.  We will be organizing fundraisers and rides primarily in Colorado and California, but there may be some east coast venues as well.

We are raising the funds necessary to bring 6-8 girls here for one month and during that time we will also be discussing opportunities and next steps with the team. One goal is to coordinate further education with two of the members that would like to be trained as coaches.  They are studying to be sports trainers at Kabul University, but getting them trained as cycling coaches could provide a job source and longevity with the women’s team looking ahead.

We are excited to engage the Mountain2Mountain audience and community to welcome these young women to the US next summer.  If you want to contribute to support getting the girls here you can donate at www.mountain2mountain.org/donate

If you want to volunteer your time, open your home, or ride with the girls while they are here, we will be coordinating that effort once we know dates and logistics.  Stay tuned and thank you for believing in this program and these young women.

#pedalarevolution

Afghan Cycling Program Evolves

The women that dare to ride have been inspiring other women to ride and the result is seeing more girls learning to ride bikes in various parts of the country.  While the number is still small, it’s mighty.  These young women are on the front line of a civil rights movement over their own mobility and freedom.

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This year we spent time in Bamiyan with Zahra, a young woman that learned to ride when she was a little girl in Iran.  She started teaching others to ride as a means of getting to school.  While she has been threatened, mostly she has found ways to work within the community to change the culture as thoughtfully as she can.  She has been the force behind several public rides and races in the community for girls, and this summer she formally registered her group of girls as a club with the sports federation.

In Kabul, we have seen more girls join the National Team, despite a decrease in security.  Nazifa is finished school to become a midwife and Frozan and Massouma are at university studying to become sports trainers.  Sadaf is no longer riding on the team, and we definitely missed her smile and spark on our last training ride.  Mariam is working more and more as Coach’s assistant and training less.IMG_4339

We worked this summer with Fatima Hadairi, who started a small bike club in Kabul last summer. She worked with us as a translator in Bamiyan and it allowed us to introduce her to Zahra and the girls in Bamiyan as well as to the girls of the national team.  One of the young girls, Nahim, who rode with Fatima last summer has joined the national team, which is wonderful to see some of the threads beginning to connect.10338763_328839847273640_7819395188590304469_n

Another thread is with Zhala, a young women we met briefly that rode a bike at the Mountain2Mountain – Bike School in the spring of 2013 as part of the final Sound Central Festival.  We’ve seen her on Kabul training rides with the national team since, and she took part in this October’s Tour de Bamiyan, the only girl from the national team to take part.

Progress is evolving throughout the country with the youth movement, time will tell if the security situation will stabilize so that more girls can begin to ride safely, but in the meantime, none of these girls plan to stop.  They have seized their freedom, convinced their families to support them, and the more press and media they get gives them the ammunition to change their culture, one pedal stroke at a time. 

You can support these women and the Afghan Cycling Program by donating at www.mountain2mountain.org/donate

Holiday Gifts With Heart and Purpose

This holiday Mountain2Mountain has a few ideas for you to support our work in Afghanistan. Short and sweet we aren’t going to write a novel.  (That’s what our founder did – you can buy Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Activism and Adventure for the Women of Afghanistan online or in bookstores)  We just want ask for your support and give you some ways to support our work while spreading holiday cheer to friends and family.

For the photographers, street artists, or lovers of Afghan culture in your life, give the coffee table book, Streets of Afghanistan. Art as activism and the power of photography to inspire and engage community.  A behind the scenes look at the groundbreaking Streets of Afghanistan pop up photography installation that took place across Afghanistan in 2012.  A collaboration of Afghan and Western photographers, this exhibition was documented by Tony Di Zinno in 2008 at its inception and in 2012 in 5 of the outdoor venues in Afghanistan.  You can purchase directly here:

streets

 

For the cyclists and bike lovers in your community and family, you can gift them cycling kits just like the Afghan women wear and support our Strength in Numbers program that supports the Afghan women’s national team, two Afghan girls bike clubs, and is launching its first US based program in 2015.  Worn below by 4 time World Ironman Champion, Chrissie Wellington!  Produced by PrimalWear we have mens and women’s cycling kits available in Small, Medium, and Large.  We also have long sleeve wind jackets for women’s only in small, medium, and large. You can order directly from us at info@mountain2mountain.org

Pricing = $110 for each jacket, $100 for jerseys and $95 for the shorts – this includes all US shipping.  Overseas orders may have extra shipping charges.  Get yours now and rock it all year in support of the women that dare to ride!

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Lastly, we couldn’t do our work without your direct financial support.

We need your help to continue our work, project by project, one step at a time, so please consider an end of year donation, and perhaps consider making a gift of a donation in a friend or family member’s name.   You can donate directly at www.mountain2mountain.org/donate  

 

100 Bikes for Afghan Girls This Holiday

Last holiday season we ran a fundraising campaign to raise money to purchase bikes for Afghan girls that were beginning to ride… we delivered over 40 bikes to young women that dare to challenge the gender barrier that has prevented women being able to ride bikes in Afghanistan. Whether members of the National Cycling Team getting bikes to take home and ride, or girls in Kabul, Bamiyan and Mazar i Sharif that are teaching each other to ride bikes for fun, for health, and for transpiration to school. IMG_4606 Mountain 2 Mountain’s work with the national team and these burgeoning ‘clubs’ have meant that we donated over 55 racing bikes for the mens and women’s team thanks to Liv Cycling and over 40 locally built commuter bikes for girls to take home and ride with friends, sisters, brothers, and fathers. This year we hope we can make our goal of 100 bikes that we can give to girls that dare to ride, but don’t have a bike of their own. Together we can pedal a revolution this holiday season and empower young women with independent mobility and freedom!! Each bike is $100 – its locally built bike that they can easily maintain and won’t be a theft risk, and includes a helmet! We will check in every few months to check on maintenance, etc. and make sure they are being maintained. You can donate today through Mountain 2 Mountain! http://www.mountain2mountain.org/donate Huge thanks for the support of these young women to challenge the cultural norms to empower themselves, one pedal stroke at a time. Want to learn more about the work we are doing in Afghanistan with the women’s team? here’s a recap of some of the press that’s hit recently! BBC World News The Guardian  IMG_4587

Women Ride Bamiyan – Cycling Takes Over

Last week, high in the Hindu Kush, a bike race was born. And there were girls. Girls borrowed bikes and took over the main road out of Bamiyan and their smiles tell the story.  The girl in the burgundy hat is Zahra, one of the first girls in the region to ride a bike.  She started teaching other girls to ride, and today there are around 30, many riding their bikes not for sport, but to get to and from school.  One of the young men that races on the men’s national team from Bamiyan, Mohammad, was part of the ride and supported these girls as a race official.

We have had the pleasure of skiing and riding with some of these girls, including Zahra, last spring, and in May there were only a handful of girls riding.  We hosted a training camp with the Kabul based national team, and Mohammad joined us for that ride too.  We met with Zahra and learned more about her story and why she started teaching young women to ride and how the community has reacted.  We rode around in front of the buddha niches and through town, while a young group of boys followed us around excitedly.  The number of girls riding here continues to grow, as does our desire to support them as they normalize bikes in their community, one girl at a time.   #pedalarevolution


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