How Women in Afghanistan are Challenging Gender Roles with Bikes
What if you were told you could not ride a bike because you're a woman? What if your younger sister wasn’t allowed to ride? What if every single woman in your family was kept away from bicycles simply because riding them was seen as immoral?
While most of us have the luxury of being able to head out on two wheels whenever we want to, for the women of Afghanistan, the world of two wheels is reserved for men. Riding a bicycle is a taboo and a sign of immorality. Something so simple—a means of transportation that so many of us take for granted—is off-limits if you’re a female.
But that is changing.
Despite the cultural taboo of females on bicycles, there is an Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team in Kabul. These women who challenge their country’s gender expectations by riding are the subjects of an upcoming film called Afghan Cycles (Let Media). Earlier this year, co-directors Sarah Menzies and Whitney Connor Clapper travelled with Mountain2Mountain Executive Director Shannon Galpin to Afghanistan with a stash of cameras and more than 350 pounds of bike gear. The goal was to document these amazing, courageous women, but also to provide support for what is hopefully a growing movement.
Based in Colorado, Galpin is an avid mountain biker and her organization works to advance women’s rights, both in the United States and Afghanistan. For her, cycling and women’s empowerment go hand-in-hand. “The bicycle is used as a vehicle for social justice around the world, decreasing gender violence, increasing access to education and health care, by providing the freedom of mobility," she says. "Not to mention the pure joy of the wind in your face as you pedal.”
While it’s still a taboo, there is so much excitement for cycling in Afghanistan that Galpin was asked to help build the first women’s mountain biking team and road biking team in Bamiyan, a province in central Afghanistan most often recognized in photos for the spaces in the mountainous landscape left empty when the Taliban blew out historic Buddha statues. Located high in the Hindu Kush, the region has attracted a tourist contingent for the skiing possibilities, and the protected area and influx of Western interest have made it a more progressive and safer place for women than other parts of the country. Now all it needs is a mountain biking culture, and if Galpin has anything to do with it, there’s no question that’s going to happen. “Next spring, the cycling movement for women will spread beyond the capital city of Kabul with two new teams being formed in the province of Bamiyan," she says. This includes the first-ever mountain bike team.
Galpin is no newcomer to the biking possibilities that Afghanistan holds; she herself was the first woman to mountain bike across the Panjshir Valley in 2009 and she has biked in places all around Afghanistan. But if these courageous Afghan women are willing to pedal towards a brighter future, they certainly need support to do it. The national team has invitations from countries like Pakistan, India and Thailand to join international races, which requires funding. And at the very basic level, they need bicycles.
To get the new mountain biking team in Bamiyan off the ground, and to continue to provide general support for the national team, Mountain2Mountain is running a “100 Bikes by Christmas” campaign. A donation of $100 equals one bike for the new team. The organization is also collecting gear, including helmets and women’s cycling clothing, all to be distributed in spring 2014. “Almost five years ago when I became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan, I repeatedly questioned the men that I met, asking 'Why can't women ride bikes?' ” Since that first ride, I have ridden in areas all around Afghanistan, each time challenging the gender barriers around biking and asking questions and sharing culture," says Galpin. "It’s my biggest joy to see that Afghan women are now riding, despite the risks, to show they are equal, and that they have the right. That cycling as a sport is emerging and that these amazing women will show the world that they dare to ride.”
As the women of Afghanistan are showing us, the bicycle can be a vehicle for empowerment and change, so let’s help pedal a revolution. To help support the Afghanistan National Women’s Cycling Team or take part in the 100 Bikes By Christmas campaign, please visit mountain2mountain.org/donation or email info[at]mountain2mountain[dot]org.
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