Afghan women cyclists riding for freedom

The story of the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team Photo: Afghan Cycling Federation

WASHINGTON, DC, March 29, 2013- When asked to describe their bicycle in one word, many cyclists of all kinds use the word “freedom.” Nowhere is this description more appropriate than for the women who make up the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team.

Challenging the long- held cultural belief that a woman cycling is offensive, these dedicated young athletes are standing up to social norms and becoming vehicles of change. 


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“Daily in Afghanistan, girls risk their lives to go to school, women risk their lives to work in government, the police forces, and even the army.  Women activists march in the streets to fight for their rights, knowing that they are making themselves targets,” says Shannon Galpin, currently producing a documentary film about the team.  “The women cyclists are doing something very simple that we take for granted, but making a huge statement in a country that doesn’t allow their women to ride bikes.” 

In Afghanistan, it is very rare to see a woman on a bike other than sitting sidesaddle behind a man.  According to Mountain2Mountain, there are currently only about 60 to 70 women cyclists in the entire country.  However, the newly created women’s team has around 12 members who are passionate about their sport and about changing the lives of women in their country.

Currently, the women on the team train once a week, due to safety concerns. Riding at the risk of their own lives, members of the team train in the back roads and highways outside Kabul.  They ride borrowed, donated, and scrapped-together road and sport bikes.  Their gear is mostly donated.  Their lone sponsor helps pay for their jerseys.  Despite opposition and social taboo, however, these women ride their bicycles as a statement of freedom.

Shannon Galpin, founder of Mountain2Mountain has been supporting Afghan women and helping them become agents of change.  The first woman to ride a mountain bike in Afghanistan in 2009, Galpin wanted to challenge gender barriers in Afghanistan and change perceptions of Afghan women back in the US. 


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Galpin and her bike returned to Afghanistan the following year to ride across the Panjshir Valley, creating the Panjshir Tour upon her return home.  The Tour was a series of grassroots rides in the U.S. to benefit Mountain2Mountains’s programs.  Recently Galpin was recognized by the National Geographic Society as one of the 2013 Adventurers of the Year.

Upon hearing that Afghanistan’s best-known cyclist, Abdul Sadiq, was starting a women’s team to train for the Olympics, Galpin got involved, collecting donated bikes and gear at Mountain2Mountain’s headquarters in Colorado.

Galpin is currently producing a short documentary film, Afghan Cycles, along with director Sarah Menzies and co-director Whitney Conner Clapper about the women and their team.  Shooting for the film will commence this spring, and organizers are currently raising money for the project on Kickstarter.  The film will follow the women as they train and take an intimate look at their daily lives, off the bike.

“This is in many ways the last major taboo to be broken,” says Galpin.  “It reminds me of reading about the start of women’s cycling in the US in the late 1800’s where women were labeled immoral or promiscuous for wanting to ride a bike, or heaven-forbid, racing.  But of course, in Afghanistan you have a much more deep-seated oppression of women overall and an active war zone environment that makes cycling all the more dangerous.  But its not just about a bike - its a symbol of freedom and of women’s rights.”  

The Afghan women’s cycling team is already having an impact in the region.  As the first foreign team participating in the 2012 National Women’s Cycling Championship in Pakistan, Afghan women cyclists are inspiring other women athletes in the region. 

To support the making of the film, visit Kickstarter

“The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

- Susan B. Anthony 1896


READ MORE: A World in our Backyard by Laura Sesana



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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.

 

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