The Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team has just been named National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. Activist Shannon Galpin is the producer of Afghan Cycles, an upcoming documentary exploring what it means—and what it takes—to empower communities to grab life by the handlebars. Here, she tells us how cycling can mean so much more than simply riding a bike, not only to the cyclist herself, but to those she inspires.
“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—nine months before I first met the women who ride on 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 as helpless victims. 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. Two and a half years later, the young women I work with in Afghanistan show me every day that they are not helpless—they are brave, strong, and fearless. They simply need tools. Or, in this case, bikes.
The young women of the Afghan National Cycling Team, and the women around Afghanistan who 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 under a constitution that included a role for women in the government. 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 and the ongoing violence. 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.
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 that 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 that will allow 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.
For more than two years I have been riding with, training, and supporting these women. Liv Cycling donated bikes and equipment for racing and training, and this past spring 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 bikes. Do you remember your first bike? The joy and the freedom you felt riding it? Young women are now teaching other young women to ride, and several ride their bikes as transportation in Kabul. They’re the first Afghan women ever to do so, crossing the bridge from sport to social independence.
I worry about these young women every day. They are on the front line in a gender and cultural war. And 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.
It’s time to support the women like these who are changing the future of their country one pedal stroke at a time, using the bike to literally take back the streets and their rights. Social change can occur one pedal stroke at a time; these women, and women like them, are the future and their fearlessness needs our support.
Learn more about Afghan Cycles at www.afghancycles.com