Everywhere you look you see men and boys on bikes, in the mountains, in villages, and in city centers like Kabul. But never women. For the past four years, I’ve been riding my bike in Afghanistan every chance I get. When a local offers up his bike, complete with pinwheel and three horns, I don’t hesitate. Ever.
It was October 2009 when I first put two wheels to dirt in the mountains of the Panjshir Valley, no big deal if you live in Colorado, but a first for any women in Afghanistan.
Then in 2010 I rode across the Panjshir Valley in an effort to challenge this gender barrier, and to change perceptions of how Westerners view Afghanistan. To show that Afghanistan more than desert and destruction and war and poverty – that Afghanistan is also breathtaking mountains and raging rivers, an outdoor adventure paradise. That locals will accept, and often encourage participation in their country on two wheels.
During the past five years of working in Afghanistan, I’ve searched for bike culture. Interestingly its the reward of patience and flow that open up the doors you are looking for. Enter Ashraf Ghani, a waiter and member of the Afghan Men’s Cycling Team. Introduced to me by a mutual friend that also bikes in Kabul – Ashraf quickly invited me to come ride with the team. They come under the Afghanistan Olympic Committee and recently secured their first key sponsor that is helping with team uniforms. They have a motley assortment of bikes, equipment, and clothing – but meet regularly to train and compete – mostly in Pakistan, but some local races are starting, even a mountain bike race up one of the hills in Afghanistan, which young Ashraf braved on his road bike, nearly crashing multiple times on the rocky descent.
Meeting up the with team at a gas station on the outskirts of town, it was soon determined that the coach wasn’t too keen to have a foreign woman join the team ride without his consent. He was worried about both my safety and the team’s reputation, but he did offer to have me join a future ride. I was slightly relieved considering they were on road bikes and I was on a ss mountain bike – it would’ve been a tough ask to keep up.
But as a parting wave before the team departed, we did get a preview of Afghanistan’s home grown Danny MacAskill.
It continually amazes me that Afghan men of all ages and backgrounds will willingly accept me on a bike as a foreign women, when the same men admit freely in the same conversation that they would not accept ‘their’ women on bikes. The state simply, ‘Its not our culture’.
It reminds me of the book I was given about American women taking up cycling in the late 1800’s. They were considered loose, unladylike, and a danger to the morality of society. Straddling a bike seat represented low class and tawdry behavior sure to earn you a swift trip to the firepits of damnation. Yet women freely embraced this mode of transportation because of the freedom it represented. Freedom that wasn’t represented yet by the women’s suffrage movement, which didn’t land us the right to even vote until the 1920’s.
So in Afghanistan, I’m always searching for the women. In Bamiyan I’ve seen women learn to ski. In Kabul they learn to skateboard. Girls regularly play soccer and volleyball in school. I’ve even spent time with the Olympic women’s boxing team. But cycling is still off limits in ways difficult to understand.
I was introduced by a friend to longtime Kabul local, Mary McMakin, an amazing woman of 84 years young, who has lived and biked in Kabul since 1961. She has lived in Afghanistan in the peaceful hippy-trail period, during Soviet occupation, through the civil war, endured the Taliban era, and today continues on as though its completely normal for an 84 year old woman to ride her bike and walk through the streets of Kabul. As it should be.
As if to prove that normalcy, my friend, Mikahil and I went for an early morning ride through the streets of Kabul to Darulamon Palace. Despite a light rain, we started out at 6am to avoid the morning crush of traffic, and to avoid too much attention that a woman was on a bike.
As we got close to the palace, I spied my first ever girl on a bike. A young girl riding bike, complete with fenders to school. This area of town is predominately a Hazara neighborhood, Mikhail explained, and the Hazaras are traditionally more progressive. I watched her bike by and smiled, elated to see a girl riding in public for the first time in 5 years.
Speaking more with the men’s cycling team coach, I learned that there is an Afghan Women’s Cycling Team in Kabul. Something that no one I knew in Kabul had heard about. Very underground, very under the radar, women are borrowing bikes, equipment, and meeting up once a week to train in the early morning hours. They have competed in Pakistan despite the inability to train often or in public, and the lack of equipment. Ten women are on the national team, and their coach informed me that there is another group in Mazar i Sharif, and that in total, there are around 60 women biking in Afghanistan.
So it seems a two wheeled revolution is building – and women on bikes may be a real possibility in years to come. Step by step as Afghan’s often say.
photos by Travis Beard and Tony Di Zinno