One Awesome Day in Afghanistan

How much awesomeness can you cram into one day in a country known worldwide as a war zone?  A lot.

Its starts with a 6am bike ride through Kabul with photographer and fellow biker, Mikhail Galustov.

We spin our wheels through quiet Kabul streets towards the historic Darulamon Palace.  Tony, Anna, and Warren joining us with the mini bus for a little early morning Kabul adventure.  Warren snapping Tony snapping us.

Riding past Kabul’s Inside Out project that was put up the day before by a group of Afghan artists in three different locations around the city as part of a worldwide street art project created by JR.

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Bike Culture in Afghanistan – 2 Wheeled Culture Revolution

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.

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Fear Doesn’t Live Here

I am sitting at my kitchen table, my front door and windows wide open to let in the fresh mountain air, enjoying a cup of coffee and conversation with my best friend, Christiane, on the other side of the country, when the topic of fear came up.  “You should write about Fear, you have experienced it so deeply, and live daily with it nipping at your heels.”  I laughed wryly, “Yeah, Fear is definitely camped outside my door waiting for an invite to come on in.”

Pausing to think if Fear is rabbithole I really wanted to dive into today, two dogs burst into my kitchen.  Neither one of them belong to me and as I chase them out Christiane hears me shout, “Get out!  Out!  This is not your home, you don’t belong in here!” 

“Hmmm”, she smiles, “It’s as if they arrived on cue to spark that response!  Those words could easily apply to Fear as much as to the those dogs.”  A cosmic sign?  Or just two overly curious and cheeky canines looking for some free food?

To me, Fear is the summation of all the undefineable things that throw up resistance to change, roadblocks to experience, and an inability to love unconditionally.  Not a fan of roadblocks of any kind, Fear is not a companion I am willing to share my time, or my coffee, with.  I have experienced it keenly as rape victim – brutal violence and violation that left me in a broken heap in the dirt.  I endure its nearby presence daily as the founder of an international non profit that hasn’t yet turned the corner financially, and as a single mother that risked everything to fight for women’s rights in conflict zones like Afghanistan and at times has to choose between groceries and phone bill.  I know how closely Fear is shadowing me. 

The trick is to recognize Fear, to say hello as you would to the paranoid Tea Party supporter you see at the coffee shop every day, but to not make friends with it.   If you simply try to ignore it, it tries to engage you in conversation, sucking you into the abyss.  But acknowledging it sets boundaries.  “Hi, I see ya, but I’m too busy to chat today.”  Move along.  I’ve got things to do.

It’s the same on a mountain bike.  I have donated my fair share of blood and skin to the Gods of Dirt and Rock along with a cracked rib and broken elbow.  One in particularly pricey donation came while bombing down the backside of Hall Ranch chasing a much faster, and experienced, friend.  I washed out on a slab of rock covered in a veil of loose dirt and ripped the better part of my forearm and elbow off.   I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out what was me and was rock, and I know that by continuing to ride donations like this are part of the contract.   Fear whispers, “Slow down, use your brakes.  Dismount before the rock garden.  Don’t try to lift your wheel over that ledge, you’ll get hurt again!” But what Fear doesn’t realize is getting hurt is part of the game.  No one is invincible, we’re not built that way.  Life is meant to PLAY!

The therapy I get from two wheels, one gear, and miles of singletrack, overwhelmingly outweighs the risks.  The combination of a clear head, burned out quads, and dirt in my teeth is far exceeds the occasional bodily appeasement to the deities.   

The irony is that by conquering Fear on my bike, I keep the daily Fear of life at bay, much like the old song, by Little Richard, “I hear you knocking but you can’t come in”, I call out. The little victories on the bike translate into confidence and courage and than equals bigger victories off the bike.  Choosing to get back on the bike knowing it may draw blood is a choice, and one I make willingly, even happily knowing that 95% of the time I’ll come off my bike, sore and dirty, but also gloriously happy.

I embrace the risks I’ve taken, without them I wouldn’t have ridden my singlespeed across the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan.  I probably wouldn’t have started mountain biking in the first place.  I wouldn’t have lived abroad for ten years.  I wouldn’t have started a business, or a non profit.  I wouldn’t have entered the fight for women’s rights.  I wouldn’t vacation in war zones.   I wouldn’t have fallen in love.  Twice.  I wouldn’t have lived abroad for ten years.  Hell, I wouldn’t have even become a mother, by far the scariest thing I’ve done to date, as anyone that has stared down a three-year-old’s tantrum can attest to. 

Sorry, Fear, but you have to stay outside with the dogs. 

What’s Blonde Got to Do With It?

According to Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft, “Lara Logan is lucky she’s alive. Her liberal belief system almost got her killed on Friday. This talented reporter will never be the same.”

I almost spilled my coffee when I read this on Media Matters this morning. Thinking it must be a mistake, I read on:

Why did this attractive blonde female reporter wander into Tahrir Square last Friday? Why would she think this was a good idea? Did she not see the violence in the square the last three weeks? Did she not see the rock throwing? Did she miss the camels? What was she thinking?

Well, Jim, here’s a newsflash: this is sexist BS, pure and simple. Lara Logan didn’t wander. She wasn’t in Tahrir Square because she took a wrong turn. She knew exactly where she was and why. Lara Logan was in the square on purpose, covering the revolution in Egypt because IT’S HER JOB. What in the world does attractive and blonde have to do with it? Are you suggesting that she was inviting rape because she is an attractive blonde? Did anyone suggest that Anderson Cooper was attacked repeatedly in Cairo because he is handsome or that Google executive, Wael Ghonim, was kidnapped because he is young and “cute”?

I am tall, blonde and the hardworking founder of Mountain2Mountain, a nonprofit organization working to advance gender equity in Afghanistan and create opportunity for woman and girls. Some may say that I am attractive.

I read most of the online commentary and media coverage about my work in Afghanistan and the comment “tall and blonde” is a frequent lead to stories about me. I get it. I’m tall and blonde, and I stand out in Afghanistan. Does this make me, or Lara Logan, ineffective at what we do? Does it mean we shouldn’t go about our work because of how we look? Judge us on the work we do, not on what we look like.

Even more despicable is your use of a woman’s attractiveness as an excuse for sexual assault. My own rape and assault was a long time ago, very few people knew about it, and I wasn’t a public figure like Lara. Luckily for me, years later, when I did talk about it publicly, it was not front-page news. You should not castigate Lara Logan because she’s an “attractive blonde female reporter.” She is a reporter who, while heroically covering one of the most important events of the decade, was the victim of a terrible crime. Period.

The other thing that disturbs me about the coverage is pinning the attack on culture. The Daily Beast articlestates: “Logan faced an ugly side of Egypt that Egyptian and foreign women here are all too familiar–and fed up–with.” I can only imagine how the Fox News coverage will spin this into the Islamaphobia-sphere.

Women all over the world are facing the “ugly side” of culture, and we are fed up with it. Congolese women are raped as weapons of war and as a means to frighten and control them. Afghan women are jailed or ostracized for being raped and brutalized and, to add insult to injury, often victimized and assaulted inside the prison by male guards. Women are raped systematically in war zones and developing countries for a variety of reasons that dehumanize them.

But let’s not forget what happens right here at home.

My own rape was in Minnesota. My sister’s was in Colorado. Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. That’s 1 in 6 women. While rape victims are not routinely jailed as they are in some countries, neither are their attackers. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.

News came out this week that Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates are being sued over their failure to deal with the cases of rape and sexual assault in our own military. A group of American servicemen and women accuse the two of failing “to take reasonable steps to prevent plaintiffs from being repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed by federal military personnel.”

Sexual assault is not a problem that belongs only to the Middle East, the developing world and war zones. This is a systemic problem that spans the globe, including our own backyard. It is rooted in how we value women. How do you change perceptions of value and respect? Things will never change until violence against women moves from a women’s right issue to a human rights issue that EVERYONE gets behind. Using World Bank data for 2008, there were 2,982,865,203 women of all ages; approximately 44.3% of the total world population. Nearly 3 billion mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.

Recently, Ben Affleck said, “As long as violence against women, sexually or otherwise, remains exclusively a women’s issue, it will always be an issue. We men must own this and we must recognize it as vital to our own survival. And we must help our brothers see it as such.”

Rape is a weapon of control and of power. Until we all stand up and take a hard look at the realities of perception, accusation, and systematic dehumanization that occur all around us, this “problem” will never be resolved.

Jim. You owe Lara Logan an apology. And another three billion for every women in the world.


A New Kind of Afghan Fighter – Enter the Women!

“Afghan women are like sleeping lions, when awoken, they can play a wonderful role in any social revolution.”

– Meena Keshwar Kamal(1956-1987)

“If elected I will face up to the old men with guns that destroyed our country. Now it is our turn to fight with them.”

– Sabrina Sagheb – age 25

Sabrina Sagheb represents the sleeping lion now awaking for a fight throughout Afghanistan.  This 25-year-old parliamentary candidate in the 2005 elections campaigned on a platform of liberal reform and gender equality, with a campaign poster that raised more than a few eyebrows across Kabul.  The term ‘charm offensive’ sums it up best.  A beautiful and modern young woman, educated in Iran, she hoped to make the wearing of the burkha a matter of choice for all women and advocates an end to forced marriages.  She lost, but became a symbol of women’s rights a mere 4 years after the Taliban were pushed aside.

In a time where female candidates, activists, and leaders are routinely targeted, attacked, and assassinated, its hard to not swell with pride when more young women like Sabrina stand up today and publicly voice their dissent.  When conservative critics voice their disgust with her campaign and call her ‘un-Islamic’ in hopes of getting her to back down, she calmly replies, “If you are not happy with me, then don’t vote for me.”

But there are men that will be.  Young men like Muhammad Naseen, who are ready for a change, regardless of gender.  “We have already voted in a lot of men. Now it is time for change.”

Change like that of another candidate in Herat, Nahid Ahmadi Farid, a young lioness of one, who enters the fray armed with a political science degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“We don’t want regrets and we don’t want to suffer another five years. We don’t want the same problems again,” Farid says. “I have stood up because of the problems Afghan women are facing. We have been behind walls for the past 30 years and no one was listening to our voice.

These women, and others like them across the country are taking enormous risks to themselves and their families to fight for equality and a brighter future for their country.  They fight against the decades of oppression forced upon them during the Soviet and Taliban times.  They fight against the corruption and abuse in the current government that only last year signed into law a bill that essentially legalized marital rape.

They have a role model in Meena Keshwar Kamal, the passionate founder of RAWA, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, assassinated in 1987.  She was an outspoken activist and feminist that founded the organization in 1977 when she was still a student at Kabul University.  RAWA’s manifesto is to promote equality and education for women and strive to “give voice to the deprived and silenced women of Afghanistan.”  The organization still operates today, underground, under great risk, but also with great success, running orphanages and schools under different names to avoid attack.  Meetings are held in secret locations, always changing, to continue the work Meena started, despite the risks.

Meena’s assassination at only 30 years old, did not deter RAWA, and their statement regarding her death demonstrates that her warrior spirit lives on.  “The enemy was rightly shivering with fear by the love and respect that Meena was creating within the hearts of our people. They knew that within the fire of her fights all the enemies of freedom, democracy and women would be turned to ashes.”

That fire is sparking again after the Taliban systemically fought to repress it and the Karzai government refuses to enforce the constitutional rights afforded them since their defeat.  Women activists are breathing life into the dormant coals and finding that there are others ready to fight alongside them.  It is up to all of us to not just encourage that fight, but to take up arms alongside them.

In the Lead up to Afghan Elections – a New Protest

Elections are always a time for unrest in Afghanistan. Its an unfortunate fact that violence ramps up as a means to deter voters and disrupt the process. The streets in Kabul are literally blanketed with hundreds of posters, every roundabout or wall is covered, and large billboards are erected haphazardly. The candidates represented in the large-scale photography chaos take enormous risks to run for office. Many are threatened with assassination, three are already confirmed dead by the Taliban.  Its not just candidates. Campaign workers are also targets, just last week the bodies of five campaign workers were found slain in Kandahar. Candidates, election officials, and voters alike will take great risks to exercise their right to run for office, and vote, regardless of security concerns.

Despite the tension, I am back in Afghanistan to move several of our development projects forward while observing the upcoming election.

Driving down the poster-strewn streets from the airport, I soon entered the ‘Ring of Steel’ of security checkpoints that surround the city center. There are actually signs up that declare you are entering the ring, a new security ‘improvement’ since last visit.  Ironic as not once was our car, a beat up Corolla, searched or stopped.  I have made my own plans to minimize the increased risk in the election lead up, knowing that its a precarious upcoming few days.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the heightened levels of violence and protests this weekend across the country resulting from one ignorant man in Florida. The threat of a 9-11 Koran burning wasn’t just ignorant from the perspective of tolerance, religious freedom, and respect. It wasn’t just tasteless to take the focus on 9-11 off those that lost loved ones and turn it into a sideshow, turning a day of mourning and remembrance into a twisted Islamaphobic protest. It wasn’t just dangerous to fan the fire sparking between Christians and Muslims worldwide.

It was also bigoted, reckless, and nauseating. Our country is great because of the freedoms we have. People of all religions and races and nationalities have travelled from afar to call America home because of these freedoms. This is not something anyone, of any faith, should take lightly. ALL beliefs deserve respect and are afforded the freedom to practice under our constitution. That’s the beauty of it.

The Florida minister has the freedom to burn the Koran should he wish, as others have the freedom to destroy the Bible or Torah under the same laws.  But actions have consequences.  Proof in point?  Another anti-American riot exploded today in Kabul in protest to his publicized plan.

Threats degrading Islam, like Koran burning, play into the hands of the Taliban by fueling the mis-belief that this is war against Islam versus a war against terroists. Fueling this fire puts our troops and international forces further at risk.

It also puts journalists, humanitarian organizations, and development aid workers at greater risk. Those like me, that choose to work in Afghanistan to help rebuild, educate, and create stability get thrown into the fire as well. I watched the news before flying into Afghanistan, with growing anger to see what a bigot with some media attention can do to rock an already unstable boat.

We’ve been here several times before. The communist-hunting by McCarthy’s trials. The Japanese internment camps in California. Why are we so keen to demonize with such broad strokes entire nationalities or religions? It seems to me that each time we do, we weaken our country a little more. Our strength is in our diversity, our weakness in our fear and racism.

As a nation built on the principles of religious freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness, we should remember that it’s the melting pot that made us a vibrant leader on the world stage.  As Afghanistan holds its elections this Saturday, we need to set a better example of tolerance and equality.  We should hold fast to those ideals our country was founded upon that we tout as the basis for democracy in other countries.

Women’s rights will be the first casualty of surrender in Afghanistan

So said the headline of the Vancouver Sun this weekend.  “Women’s rights will be the first casualty of surrender in Afghanistan.”  The article discusses Canada’s role in Afghanistan and makes the argument that those involved in the international conflict need to look beyond the desire to find the quickest exit strategy and instead take a stand for human rights.   This article was written from the Canadian perspective, but you could easily substitute the United States, Sweden, Germany, or England, among the many involved in Afghanistan.

“Arguments surface today when we raise our voices about violence against women in other countries. We are told that violations of women’s rights are part of someone else’s culture, and that we have no business interfering. We should just mind our own affairs.

In fact, it is those of us inclined to believe that human rights are a Western invention who are most vulnerable to this argument. If the right to food and dignity is as cultural as casual Fridays at the office, it may indeed seem offensive to criticize others for alternative practices. But this is like suggesting that the need to eat is a peculiarly Canadian characteristic. The right to equal treatment, education, and freedom from violence are not specific to one culture. They are universal entitlements that are valued as ardently among Afghan women as our own.”

The words sent a chill through my spine.  This is why I founded Mountain2Mountain.  This is why I believe we can be catalysts for change.  Its why I believe that the women and girls of Afghanistan are the solutions, not the just the victims.

We CAN be the change we wish to see in the world.  We can insist upon human rights and gender equity for all, regardless of culture or geographic boundary.  Not only CAN we.  We MUST.

photo by Di Zinno


Something new is in the streets of Kabul.

Increased security?  Check

Lakes of mud and seweage?  Check


Street art, stencil art specifically, has tagged several walls across Kabul.

A tank, a soldier, a dollar sign, poppies, students and schools, helicopters, a Talib, a question mark, and the phrase “Cost of War” are put together into equations across several walls – giving Afghans and Westerners alike a reason to stop and think.  and gossip.

The ‘unknown’ taggers started the stencil art to increase awareness about the Cost of War.

Step one.  Under the cover of night they took to the streets of Kabul, armed with stencils, black spray paint, and cameras.  Taking the first step in bringing street art to the streets of Kabul with a voice that is still dormant in the youth movement in Afghanistan.

Step two?   Stay tuned…..