This is what one woman needed to overcome to ride in Afghanistan

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Afsana Nawrozi got her first bicycle, a pink kid’s bike with training wheels, when she was seven. It had arrived from the United Arab Emirates where her father worked as a day laborer. She was asked to share it with her cousin, a boy her age. The two families lived on their ancestral farm in the mountains of Jaghori, a mostly peaceful district in Central Afghanistan.

Initially, the pair got along well sharing their new toy; at first learning to ride around the house and the chicken fence, then venturing out to the quiet, white-rock-faced hills surrounding their farm. But three years later, when the duo had outgrown the tiny bicycle, only Afsana’s cousin received an upgrade: a bigger bicycle with more gears. Afsana’s elders told her that she was no longer a child and too old for a girl to ride.

As an Afghan male cyclist, I can count on my fingertips the number of Afghan women I know who ride a bicycle. But that is, perhaps, an underestimation. There is a difference between girls who ride and girls who can ride. In a society whose people overwhelmingly oppose the idea of women turning a pedal, the true number of Afghan female cyclists could be far higher than we know; they simply escape the naked eye because we have made the streets too dangerous for them to ride.

Behind every tall mud-brick wall, I imagine a girl who seizes every opportunity to ride a bicycle left lying in the yard by her brother, making lap after lap in a tiny square.

The girls I know either learned to ride when they lived as refugees in Iran or Pakistan, or after they had been abroad as students in countries with more tolerable circumstances. Rarely do we run into a girl who has picked up cycling in Afghanistan, whose life story has revolved purely around a bicycle, the way it is allowed to in freer corners of the world.

Afsana is one of those rare girls, a 17-year-old cyclist in Kabul who has been turning pedals for as long as she can remember. She is a member of the women’s national team, and a leader for an increasing number of Afghan girls who are breaking away from living behind thick walls.

***

Dejected as she was by missing out on a new bike when she was younger, Afsana soon figured out a way to continue to pedal. Whenever her cousin napped, she would quietly take the keys to the bike lock from his pocket, and ghost out. One can only imagine the thrill, but also the stress she must’ve felt as she secretly unlocked the bike and hurried out of sight down the hill and around the family’s apricot orchards.

Her scheme was soon discovered after she took a fall and hurt her knee. To her inquiring cousin, she failed to give a convincing explanation for why her knee was bleeding. Then the cousin’s family moved to Kabul, taking with them the now-even-more-scarce secret riding. Afsana watched that black bicycle disappear as the moving lorry drove away. For three years after that, she didn’t see another bicycle.

In seventh grade, after noticing Afsana’s exceptional academic record, a visiting teacher from Marefat — a well-known Afghan private school — recommended she move to Kabul and attend Marefat. Until then, she had only heard of the capital city, some six hours away from her village by car. The idea stuck in her head.

That night, she shared the idea with her father who was quick to turn it down. The move to Kabul would be too costly, he said, and besides, he would have a hard time finding a job there. Luckily, Afsana’s older sister who was attending university in Kabul at the time supported the move and stepped in to cover her expenses.

Afsana’s new life in Kabul proved to be challenging at first. At just 13 years old, she had left her parents behind, and moved in with her sister who was either at university or her job all day. Afsana was left on her own to navigate the complex systems and customs of the chaotic capital city.

Getting an entry to Marefat, whose officials hesitated to take her in despite her glamorous grades, added to her dismay. They argued that the standard in her previous school was simply too low to guarantee her success in Marefat’s challenging academic environment. Afsana fought back, promising that if they took her in, she would work extra hard to catch up.

The school finally agreed to take a bet on her. And before long, she began to excel, not just in the classroom but in other aspects of school life. She joined several clubs and became captain of the girl’s indoor soccer team. With Afsana settled in Kabul, the rest of her family soon followed.

By now, you can probably see a pattern in Afsana’s character: she gets what she wants. When her father found a job as a cab driver, Afsana asked him to reward her recent achievements in school with a brand new bicycle. It had been four years since she had last ridden a bike. Her father fulfilled the request, and Afsana began riding everywhere: to school, to get groceries, to soccer practice.

On her very first day back on the bike, she discovered that riding in Kabul was very different to what she was used to back in her village. Here, everywhere she went, people threw insults, even glass bottles at her. “You’re a girl! What business does a girl have on a bike?”, people shouted at her. For a while, Afsana cut her hair and dressed up as a boy to avoid attention, but this too proved ineffective. One day a man called her out in a busy street asking whether she was a boy or a girl. A large crowd of men laughed when someone else responded, loudly, “neither, or perhaps both.” After that, she decided to keep her head down while riding and not respond.

Afsana’s entry into the world of bicycle racing, like most cyclists around the world, was a chance encounter. One day, about two years ago, she was invited as part of her high school’s cultural dance group to perform in a program on “ending violence against Afghan women” organized by the Asian Cultural House, a civil society organization. There, the organizers told her about a women’s bike race the following day as part of the same campaign.

Afsana showed up the next morning on her hybrid bike, and took the start line alongside girls she had only seen on TV until then, winning sparse bike races in Kabul and Bamyan, a much safer province where women’s cycling has gained more support from the public. That day, Afsana crossed the finish line in fourth place, just behind the three girls from Bamyan. Thrilled by her result, the Director of Bamyan’s cycling club gave Afsana his telephone number and invited her to train with the club.

That was a pivotal moment for Afsana; it kindled her passion for racing, but also something else deep down: a desire to see more of her country and its people. “Seeing these girls from other provinces, I just got the idea and excitement to one day bike all over Afghanistan, province by province,” she said.

Afsana rode longer routes home after her soccer practice. Leaving the indoor soccer turf, she navigated unpaved backstreets to Dar-ul-Aman Road, where the palace of the early 20th century King Amanullah Khan sits bomb-scarred as a reminder of Afghanistan’s glorious past and the ensuing conflicts. From the palace, the multi-lane road stretches straight for eight kilometres towards the TV-tower-topped mountain in the city’s centre.

The absence of traffic congestion here — normal elsewhere in Kabul, characterized by pushcarts, pedestrians and flocks of sheep — makes it a good place for people to ride their bikes or go for a run. Every day, Afsana rode Dar-ul-Aman Road out, then back to her home before it got dark. One day, she ran into a couple male cyclists who introduced themselves as members of the Afghan national cycling team. Intrigued by Afsana riding alone, they invited her to join them on some of their rides. They also told her about a race the very next day.

Of course, Afsana showed up to the start line, only this time she was not alone. Her family and close friends had come to watch, and Afsana honored their presence by crossing the finish line in third place. Elated, on the spot, her father promised 5,000 Afghanis (about US$70) towards a better bike (Afsana podiumed on her hybrid bike against girls with far better equipment). Her sister promised another 5,000, and her friends could only follow the gesture.

In Kabul’s shabby bike stores, which mostly sell single-speed commuter bikes, Afsana failed to find anything that remotely resembled a road bike. Eventually, through her newfound contacts in the national team and the cycling federation, she found one that fit. It belonged to a boy in Mazari Sharif, a city some 450 kilometres to the north. She took it.

On her new-old bike, which had traded several hands from Europe to secondhand markets in Iran before it came to Afsana 15 years after its manufacture date, Afsana began training with some of the national team’s male cyclists. The group had, and continues to have, one route option long enough to satisfy their training needs: out and back to Paghman, a high mountain town 25 km to the northwest of Kabul, where previous kings kept holiday homes.

***

Like everything else in Afghanistan, the country’s cycling federation is trying to build itself up, struggling with lack of funding, expertise, and endemic corruption. Last year, the federation managed to organize only two bike races for women, but even that is significant enough to keep the field alive and incentivize girls like Afsana to keep on training.

She won both of those races; one aptly titled “Peace and Acceptance” and the other the “Prosperity Cup.” Soon, local and national television channels took notice of her accomplishments. In several live interviews, Afsana has been hailed for her courage and pioneering work for women.

But it hasn’t all been roses and glory. Afsana achieved her success while facing insults and threats on a daily basis.

On a recent ride to Paghman, while stopped in a traffic jam at a busy intersection, a crowd of bystanders, all young men, directed a series of stinging comments at her. “The words were too painful to ignore”, she said. Afsana told the young men, “if you think I am that bad, it’s enough that you are good.” The maturity in her subtle comment further angered the harassers. Had the traffic not unlocked, Afsana feared they’d have probably done something to harm her.

Teary-eyed, she frantically pedaled away. Down the road, her training buddies — the two male cyclists from the national team — caught up with her. They were angry at her for fighting back. They scolded and schooled her that “confronting those bad guys only invites more trouble.” I asked her if the male cyclists have ever stood up for her. “Never”, she said. When I pressed her to tell me what the insults had been, she said “it is too indecent to even try to bring the words to my tongue.”

Against dehumanizing public shaming, she has resolved not to fight back and fan the flames. But sometimes the comments are too harsh to let slide.

More worrying than verbal insults, however, are the physical blows Afsana has received on several occasions. Three times she has been hit by a car, one of which was intentional.

Three years ago, when she had just started riding in Kabul, a Toyota sedan hit Afsana from behind on Dar-ul-Aman Road. The driver appeared to be either drunk or stoned (the distinction is not made in Afghanistan, where alcohol consumption is illegal). Afsana was knocked to the ground, unconscious.

The driver’s older brother was kind enough to take her to a hospital. But to escape any legal charges, he lied to the doctors about the incident and Afsana herself, claiming that Afsana was a relative of theirs and had fallen down a flight of stairs. When Afsana had come back to consciousness, she told the doctor what had happened, and only then were the police and her father called to the hospital.

A year later, during the holy month of Muharram, when followers of the Shiite Muslim sect hold a 10-day mourning for Imam Hussain, the martyred grandson of the Prophet, a Toyota sedan packed with young men in black mourning dresses pulled up alongside Afsana and ordered her to get off her bike immediately. “They told me, ‘You’re a girl! You should be mourning right now!’”, she said. Afsana ignored their continuous intimidation. Then the car sped up, stopped abruptly in front of her, and someone propped open a passenger door. Too close to stop, Afsana ran into it. She broke two fingers on her left hand.

But the most life-threatening of these incidents happened in December of last year. Afsana was with Farshad, a male riding buddy on a narrow road that runs parallel to the busy Airport Road. A trash pick-up truck appeared out of nowhere, charging head-on towards them. Taking the full width of the road, it didn’t show any sign of slowing down.

First, it plowed into Farshad who launched into the air to avoid going under the truck’s belly. Afsana managed to dodge her head away from the bumper but it was too late to completely get her shoulder out of the way. The impact sent her flying to the ground. Farshad found Afsana lying on the ground, unable to move her left arm. When the police showed up, they suggested Afsana walk away because she wasn’t bleeding. Later that day, she underwent surgery for a broken collarbone.

It could’ve been far worse, even fatal, had they not reacted quickly. Afsana’s road bike, the one she had acquired with so much difficulty, was destroyed beyond repair.

Three months later, with her collarbone still healing, when the federation announced there would be a race on March 8th in honor of International Women’s Day, Afsana couldn’t just watch from the sidelines. She borrowed a bike from a male member of the team and sailed to victory. News of her victory reached us at Mountain Bike Afghanistan just as the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. In the coming days and weeks, we put together a Specialized road bike, some accessories, and sent the package to Kabul before a possible closedown of the borders.

When Afsana was in bed recovering from her surgery, most of her relatives visiting her had tried to use her grim reality to dissuade her from riding.

“Won’t you stop cycling? There is no use in breaking gender taboos in a country like Afghanistan,” her uncle said. “People are wild here.” But to Afsana, change has already happened and the future is positive and bright.

As the coronavirus lockdown has slowly been lifted in Kabul, Afsana is back on the street on her new bike. But there is a new air around cycling this time. Her phone constantly buzzes with texts from friends, all female, who have purchased bikes during the lockdown, and are asking to go on rides with her. “I know at least 10 new girls who didn’t ride before but are all of a sudden very excited”, she said. People on the streets have been behaving too. The lockdown, and the reduction in cars and public transport, has made people more tolerant of cyclists, including women. Afsana hopes this change in public attitude will outlast the pandemic.

Afsana dreams of riding across Afghanistan, competing in neighboring countries and meeting their female cyclists, representing Afghanistan in the Olympics … the list goes on. Perhaps lofty goals for a girl working from within Afghanistan, but Afsana has already proven capable. At only 17 years old, her list of achievements goes beyond her triumphs on the bike. As a member of the US-based nonprofit “Free to Run,” she is a two-time finisher of the newborn Bamyan Marathon, and has won several half marathons and shorter-distance runs in Kabul.

Next to deniers of her journey, thankfully, there are also a handful of individuals who strongly support her. One of them is her high school principal who also visited Afsana while she was recovering from her shoulder surgery. “Don’t worry! These days fall on all heroines. You’ll be back in no time” he said.

But Afsana’s biggest cheerleader is her grandmother, who keeps on telling her that she is better than a 100 boys combined. And in a society that values boys over girls, that is saying a lot.

About the author

Farid Noori is the founder and executive director of Mountain Bike Afghanistan, an organisation that seeks to empower Afghan youth with the joy of riding and competing on mountain bikes, while connecting people across borders through their shared love of cycling.
 
Farid comes Ghazni, Afghanistan but discovered mountain biking while on a scholarship to graduate high school in the U.S. He raced collegiate cycling for Middlebury College in Vermont where he also earned a degree in Economics. He now races full time, representing Afghanistan in international UCI races in the US, while also building Mountain Bike Afghanistan.

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