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A documentary currently in production follows the lives of the young women riding bikes and breaking taboos in Afghanistan.
In early 2013, a crew of filmmakers travelled to Afghanistan to film a short documentary on the National Women’s Cycling Team. Shortly after they began filming, the crew realized that a short film wasn’t enough. The National Women’s Cycling Team face great challenges and their involvement in cycling itself carries with it enormous risks. Following the realization that this incredible movement deserves more coverage, the film crew decided to expand the film into a feature-length documentary, Afghan Cycles.
The whole idea began in November 2012 when Shannon Galpin, a women’s right humanitarian and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, was riding her bike through the hills outside of Kabul when she stopped in at a roadside café. This was Galpin’s 11th visit to Afghanistan, and in all that time she’d never seen another woman on a bike. But that day, the barista at the café who happened to be an amateur cyclist mentioned that not only were Afghan women riding bikes, but they had formed their own national cycling team.
Galpin was told these women practiced on the highways before dawn on old road bikes, wearing their headscarves tucked under helmets and decked out in long pants and full sleeves. Their coach and the team’s founder, Mohammad Abdul Sediq, accompanied them on their rides every day and his daughter was one of the first members of the team. In Galpin’s first meeting with Sediq in October 2012, he mentioned that there were about a dozen women, most in high school, currently riding with him.
Galpin, who claims to be the first woman and American to have ridden a bike through the Afghan countryside, was astounded at what she’d learned. The rules in Afghanistan have changed somewhat in the decade since Taliban control, when women weren’t permitted to go to school let alone play sports. Now indoor activities such as volleyball attract female participants in the middle and high school levels, but riding a bike riding a bike remains absolutely taboo. It is generally considered immoral and requires a different level of tolerance and security than indoor sports. Women who ride bikes in Afghanistan are left vulnerable to criticism, ridicule and, in the worst-case scenario, physical violence.
On Galpin’s next trip to Afghanistan the following spring, she returned with 350 pounds of bicycle gear and a film crew from Let Media to begin the process of filming a documentary about these amazing women. She also mobilized her own non-profit, Mountain2Mountain, and launched a gear drive for the women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation.
Galpin met with Fawzia Koofi, a female politician in Afghanistan, who spoke to her about the dangers the team faces. She notes that these women understand the heightened risks they face as they live them every day.
Men driving by insult them, tell them they are disrespecting their families; boys throw rocks at them. At times, the women don’t have enough money to buy sufficient food for their rides. The women on the team are constantly reminded that it is “un-Islamic” for a woman to ride a bike. But for this group of women it is very simple: People tell them it is not their right to ride a bike, they tell these people that it is their right. And they do so every day by continuing to ride.
The women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan has only been active for a few years, yet they are determined to succeed in their chosen sport and are aiming to ride in the 2020 Olympics. Currently, they have yet to finish a race, but in March 2013, a few of them competed in a major international race in New Delhi, the 33rd Asian Cycling Championships. This was the first time in history that Afghanistan fielded a woman’s team. Though four of them didn’t finish the race, the fact that they were there at the starting line is itself a small victory on the path to transforming attitudes about women in Afghanistan.
For Galpin, the women on the National Cycling Team are no different than the women in Afghanistan who risk their lives to attend school or run for Parliament. They know the best way to inspire change is to lead by example. If other women see them out there on their bikes, maybe they’ll be inspired to break the mould in their own way.
The National Team of Afghan women have no illusions about the difficult road they face. However, their dreams remain large – from winning an Olympic medal to taking a ride down the street without fear. The film crew has launched a Kickstarter to continue their efforts of drawing attention to this incredible movement, not only the obstacles they face, but the extent of what they can accomplish.