August 2016, No. 2  Vol. LIII, Sport Aims for the Goals

Eight years ago I began working in Afghanistan, which is repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman, let alone one fighting for women’s rights. I came to the country on my own with questions centred around gender violence and equality. I was cognizant of my own preconceptions as an American woman, but as a victim of rape, and as a sister of a rape victim, I was working from a place of curiosity. What are the conditions necessary for widespread acceptance of gender violence and oppression? What are the similarities in how Afghanistan and the United States address women’s rights, and where are the solutions?  What does it take for women to have a voice? 

As I travelled the country by car, by motorcycle, and eventually by mountain bike, I was able to experience it in a unique way. While most of my counterparts in aid and development work were limited by security protocols and red tape, and embassy staff often could not even leave their compounds, I was able to weave my way through the country and to work in unique ways alongside locals. I slept on the floors of family homes in mountain villages and engaged in authentic and often intimate conversations with men and women outside of the parameters of a scheduled meeting or agenda. I delivered school supplies in remote mountain communities; spearheaded construction of a school for the deaf in Kabul; worked in women’s prisons; created street art installations; and supported graffiti art projects with young artists in Kabul.

The past decade has seen an increase in the number of women running for public office and joining the police force and army; young activists marching in the streets to protest sexual harassment; and projects started by women for women that amplify their voice and solidify their role in a male-dominated society. Young, educated women are now determined to challenge the barriers that prevent equality and encourage oppression.

On my very first visit to Afghanistan, I realized, amid the cacophony and chaos of bicycles weaving through the urban streets and providing transportation in rural villages, that all the riders were men and boys. Not on any of the thousands of bikes on the Afghan streets did I see a female rider. 

Around the rest of the world, especially throughout South Asia and Africa, bikes are used directly as tools for empowerment and social justice. They are accessible in local bicycle markets, are more affordable than cars or motorcycles and are easy to repair. Bicycles can also be used to improve health and are environmentally friendly. The independent mobility afforded by bikes increases access to school and medical care, and has been shown to reduce gender violence rates when girls are allowed to ride. As a victim of gender violence, I fell in love with bikes for another, less tangible reason. When I ride, I feel like the strongest, freest version of myself. I’m like Wonder Woman on two wheels, bulletproof and armed with my lasso of truth. That feeling is at the root of what I consider to be the most positive benefit of sport. It can’t be quantified in simple numbers or statistics, but it is powerful beyond measure. Freedom and self-confidence should be the primary goal of all humanitarian work.

I began mountain biking in Afghanistan as a means of challenging and questioning the gender barrier that is deeply rooted in Afghan society and in the wider region, and to discover the reasons behind the deep-seated taboo that prevents girls from riding bikes. Two such reasons emerged at the heart of the issue: the first is related to virginity and honour, the second to independence and mobility. 

Virginity and morality are practical concerns when one considers how women are valued in society and how their actions reflect on family honour. Girls are often only of value in terms of their ability to be married off; they must be virgins at the time of marriage. Proof of virginity comes on the wedding night with the appearance of blood. Girls have been sent back to their families if their virginity is questioned, ruining the entire family’s reputation. Sport, and riding bicycles in particular, is seen as something that could damage a girl’s honour, not just by the radical act of riding in public but by the loss of an intact hymen. While few girls in the West would be concerned that playing sports could break their hymen and ruin their reputation and marriageability, it is a very real concern in a country where virginity tests are still provided by doctors as proof of honour. 

The second reason concerns independent mobility. In a country that still tightly controls women’s freedom of movement and dress code, and where very few women learn to drive or could afford a car even if they knew how, bicycles provide access to independent mobility. This independence on two wheels is the reason that bicycles have been an integral symbol and tool for women’s rights movements around the world, including the American and English suffrage movements. One of the most beloved American suffragists, Susan B. Anthony, was quoted as saying, “The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Riding bicycles was not without risk in the West. American and English women who began riding bikes in the late 1800s were considered immoral and promiscuous. This shows that cycling has always been controversial for women, not just in Afghanistan but across the world. Nevertheless, it has also brought about real social change in terms of equality and independence.

Despite the risks to honour and safety in a country still in the midst of conflict, Afghan girls have begun their own two-wheeled revolution. Much like American and English women a century earlier, they ride to challenge gender barriers despite the risks and insist upon their right to ride. Over the past three years, I have borne witness to four different groups of women riding bikes and sat down with countless others who ride through their neighbourhoods at dusk or dressed as boys with their brothers or fathers. 

The most notable of these groups is the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team in Kabul, founded by a man who also established the men’s team. I met the Women’s Cycling Team in 2012 and have supported and trained them, tapping into my previous career as a sports trainer. I attempted to mentor the coach, and work with a corrupt sports federation that has impeded the girls while at the same time providing them the structure to organize as a national team. The Team has been invited to race outside of Afghanistan, and while they have a long way to go before becoming competitive against professional female racers, they are challenging the taboo that surrounds women’s cycling. 

As the Team struggles to move forward despite corruption within the Afghan Olympic Committee and the Afghan Cycling Federation, media attention and the recent Nobel Peace Prize nomination have inspired many young girls to learn to ride. In Bamiyan, Zahra Hosseini has been teaching girls to ride for several years. They formed a club, organized several cycling community rides and races, and have recently registered the club as an official team with the Sports Federation in order to gain a stronger platform to advocate for girls’ right to ride. On several occasions, while riding with Ms. Hosseini and her friends, young boys have told me that they were going home to teach their sisters to ride bicycles. Back in Kabul, several informal bike clubs, not formed by a non-governmental or external organization but by Afghan girls, have started to bring girls together to ride. Most recently, the BorderFree Cycling Club formed as the first co-ed bike club, in which boys and girls ride together as a way to break through gender stereotypes.

It took a generation of American and English women to begin to break through the gender barrier that stigmatized women who rode. It took nearly a century for them to be accepted as professional cyclists like their male counterparts. Finally, in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, United States of America, women were allowed to compete as cyclists. Change doesn’t happen in one- or five-year project plans. It happens over the course of a generation, organically and authentically. The Afghan women who ride today are pedaling a revolution. It may take decades before they normalize cycling for all girls, but with every pedal stroke they are standing up for their rights and inspiring others to do the same.