Movers and Shakers: Afghanistan’s two-wheeled revolution

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Update: With the belief that sharing powerful stories opens a door to understanding and change, Shannon Galpin and her team have been filming and documenting the incredible stories of the women’s Afghan cycling teams. To do these stories justice, they’re turning short documentary into a full feature-length film titled Afghan Cycles, slated to premier in Spring 2016. They launched a second kickstarter campaign to fund the final stages of production so they can share these powerful stories and bring about change.

Original story posted February 10, 2015:

Remember what it felt like to ride a bicycle when you were a child? The freedom, the sense of adventure, the empowerment and, of course, the joy?
Unfortunately, there continue to be countries in this world where bicycling is culturally, or even legally, prohibited. Well, for girls and women anyway.

Shocked to find out that this was the case in Afghanistan, Mountain2Mountain founder and avid mountain biker, Shannon Galpin decided to do something about it, using the bicycle to open conversation, challenge gender barriers and bring about change.

Growing up pedaling

The bike has played many roles in Galpin’s life. Like most American kids in the mid-1970s, Galpin grew up riding her bicycle, discovering the joys and freedom as she tore around the neighborhood.

“Even at a young age, the bike for me represented freedom. Freedom of mobility and the ability to separate from my parents,” Galpin said.

Galpin then spent her entire twenties in Europe, where the bicycle became her main mode of transport.

“I became completely immersed in the normality of biking as your daily mode of transportation and commute,” she said, adding that she’d spent the weekends riding around to meet her friends for a beer, adding a social aspect to biking as well.

And after moving to Colorado when she was 30, she discovered mountain biking and got hooked.

“I started riding aggressively and racing. Mountain biking was about challenging myself, my fears and barriers, and about exploring remote areas on two wheels,” she said


At the same time, Galpin was facing new challenges off the bike as well.

Fueled by the belief that all women and girls deserve the same rights and opportunities as her own daughter, Galpin walked away from her career as an athletic trainer and used her own limited funds to launch Mountain2Mountain to empower and give voice to women and girls in conflict zones in Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan.

It wasn’t before long that her humanitarian work and new-found passion for mountain biking unintentionally entwined.

“The year I started mountain biking —2006—is the year I started Mountain2Mountain, which actually didn’t have anything to do with biking,” Galpin said, who at time was working with women in Afghan prisons. “But during my three trips into Afghanistan, I noticed boys and men biking everywhere. It was very common to see bikes in and amongst the traffic, but never ridden by girls. When I started looking into it, I realized that Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world where girls can’t ride bikes and never have been able to ride bikes.”

So on her next trip, she brought her mountain bike and set out to explore the question, ‘why can’t girls ride bikes?’. By doing so, she became the first woman to ride a mountain bike through Afghanistan.

“The bike became an incredible icebreaker with Afghans,” Galpin said. “They would ride my bike, I would ride their bike, and we laughed and talked and shared in a way that would never happen if I did not have my bicycle. Afghan men would never have interacted with me in the same way.  So I continued to ride as a way to have an icebreaker and to explore Afghanistan in a completely different way.”

Throughout it all, Galpin shared her discoveries, adventures and photos with the West to not only further the conversation about girls and bikes but also to show them a beautiful and different Afghanistan from what they see in the news.

Legal and Cultural Consideration

Legally, Afghan women are not prohibited from riding a bike — unlike Saudi Arabia where women riding bicycles is a criminal offensive punishable with jail time — but it’s certainly a cultural taboo. Women riding bikes are considered immoral and dishonorable.

“Rocks will be thrown at you. You and your family could get threatened and even killed. It’s never been something worth pushing against for Afghan girls,” said Galpin.

Until now.

In this post-Taliban generation, an increasing amount of girls are stepping outside of cultural gender norms. Women are voting and running for political offices, women are becoming artists and also, becoming athletes.

“The first time I rode a bicycle in Afghanistan was 2009. It wasn’t until three years later that I met the first Afghan girls riding bikes, and they were part of the national cycling team,” Galpin said. “Since then my work and my love of bikes have completely meshed.  My work now, with Mountain2Mountain, is on the women’s cycling program in Afghanistan whether it’s the women’s national team or the groups of girls that are starting to band together and teach each other how to ride.”

You now see girls riding bikes because, for the first time in Afghan history, it’s being presented to them as an option. But, even more promising, you see girls riding bikes and teaching other to ride as a way to get to school to claim the freedom of mobility and the opportunities that present themselves with that freedom.

“It’s a revolution on two wheels and it’s happening now, in real time,” said Galpin.

It remains highly controversial and dangerous.

“Girls do get threatened and many believe it’s not worth the risk. But this is not a western program. These are Afghan girls, and I completely support them as they are pushing their own (and cultural) boundaries,” Galpin said. “The danger is not the biking. The danger is their gender.”

Interestingly, this two-wheeled revolution is nothing new. It’s reminiscent of the turn of the 20th century, when women in Europe and the U.S. started riding bikes at the same time as the suffrage movement started gaining ground.

“That first wave of women that took to the bike, they were considered immoral and promiscuous, too. And that’s the same thing we’re seeing in Afghanistan now. So you can’t put this as an Afghan or Muslim issue. This has happened in every culture the moment women started to ride, including our own,” stated Galpin. “It upsets the social structure when women no longer need men as an escort and gain independent mobility and freedom, which is threatening to the status quo of the time.”

But that doesn’t make it any easier.

“I’ve been asked if getting these girls on bikes is worth the risks, but you have to remember that these girls have taken these sorts of risks their whole lives, just by walking to school,” Galpin pointed out. “They are not taking any more risk by riding bikes than they are in walking to school or playing football or certainly by running for politics. The danger is not the biking. The danger is their gender.”

And that is an issue that crosses all borders, said Galpin, who is a sexual violence survivor herself.

For Afghan women the revolution is only starting.

“Cultural taboos will take a long time to change – generations,” said Galpin. “And that’s only if there’s peace. If that deteriorates over the next couple of years, which is a worry,  then women’s rights will be the first rolling backwards.”

Post-Taliban, Afghan women have been given rights such as the right to an education, the right to vote and the right to run for political offices. But that doesn’t mean they are followed.

“You still have women in jail because they were raped or they tried to escape an arranged marriage. That’s still normal. You still have girls that are kept from going to school and schools that are being burned down,” Galpin said, adding that Afghanistan ranks as one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman.

Biking for fun and sport

This doesn’t mean that every Afghan girl learning to ride sets out to tackle these civil issues. Girls, just like their brothers and equals around the world, start riding for the joy and excitement.

“All the girls I met on the [national cycling] team started biking to try something new. They love the freedom, the physical benefits and getting in the miles the same way we do in,” said Galpin.

It’s what bonds the young Afghan women together and to Galpin.

“I have had some amazing interactions with young Afghan girls and women but they all have a little bit of reserve to them because I am still the outsider. But through training and riding with these girls, that reserve has dissipated. The laughter and joking and sharing comes through in ways no other stuff does,” said Galpin.

The vehicle of change

Galpin shared that the Afghan national women’s cycling team is very keen on getting a wildcard for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

In an effort to encourage greater sports participation worldwide, the International Olympic Committee reserves the right to present wildcards to teams and athletes whose predicament prevents them from obtaining the points necessary to qualify for the Olympics.

The Afghan cycling federation plans to petition for a wildcard with the hopes of shedding a positive light on Afghanistan.

“It’s a long shot. It’s a cycling federation that is very young and these girls have only been riding for two or three years at most,” said Galpin. “There is a long road ahead but if they were to go to the Olympics, it would shift the whole idea of girls on bikes from an Afghan girl riding a bike and doing something controversial to an Afghan girl riding a bike to represent Afghanistan on the world’s stage. At that point the nationalistic pride starts to override the controversy.”

Galpin believes that Olympic exposure could help lift the taboo of girls biking. In turn, this would help bring in more bicycles so girls can ride to school, midwives can get around more easily to serve the community and women will be given the independent mobility to combat sexual harassment.

Learn more about Galpin’s work in her memoir, Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan. She is also producing a documentary about the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team, Afghan Cycles, which will premier in 2016.

Movers and Shakers is a regular Ella feature on the women that make the world of women’s cycling go round. The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. Simone Giuliani oversees this series and happily accepts your nominations for Movers and Shakers in the comment sections of these articles.

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