The story of one cyclist’s escape from the Taliban

Fearing for her life, Rukhsar Habibzai fled to the US where she'll now race with Team Twenty24.

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If you’re reading this then you’re probably a cyclist yourself, or at least a fan of the sport. The likelihood, though, is that you aren’t faced with a choice between the sport you love and your own safety; between riding your bike, or seeing your family again.

For Rukhsar Habibzai that choice became a reality when she was forced to flee her home in Afghanistan to protect herself from a resurgent Taliban who would almost certainly target her for her involvement in the sport. 

“Now, in the rule of Taliban government, women are not allowed to go outside, they are not allowed to do sports, they are not allowed to do education to do jobs outside,” she tells me. “For the Taliban government, a girl or a woman can’t do a job. They can’t do whatever they want. They can’t go to school, university, and [do] different sports.

“We had a lot of teams for women like basketball and volleyball, but now they are done. They are finished. And like me, they are hopeless. We struggled for our rights for 20 years, we studied, we struggled for our rights, but now it’s done.” 

Rebuilding rights

Rukhsar started cycling as a child in a culture where girls riding bikes was still widely deemed as unacceptable. “I was very young when I rode my bike in Ghazni province,” she says. “Then I felt so good and started biking as a hobby with my friends. Then we moved to Kabul city where I started riding bikes in the streets of Kabul.

“At first it was very difficult for our people to accept a girl to ride a bicycle because it’s not in our culture. So it’s very difficult for me, because when I was riding a bike people [were] throwing stones and using bad words for me and some people harassed me. So many problems I faced,” she recalls. 

Rukhsar’s dream is to represent Afghanistan at the Olympic Games “and show to all of them [who] thought Afghan women are weak, you can participate in sports, they can be doctors, they can be engineers … I will show them that Afghan women are brave.” 

After years of gaining cycling experience, Rukhsar founded Afghanistan’s first women’s-only cycling club, Cheetah Cycling. “When I created this club I faced a lot of problems because I’m a girl, and I was very active,” she says. “I had good connections with other clubs and with foreign NGOs. The biggest issue and the challenge for me was asking women to step out from their homes and join my club.

“So because of these things I was threatened by the Taliban for establishing this club and helping women to learn in cycling.” 

In her efforts to encourage more women to take part in the sport, Rukhsar’s profile increased, and with it came the negative reaction to her work. “When I had interviews with TV, I told them if a girl wants to join a cycling club, my cycling club is open for them. They can come and I have bicycles for them. I have helmets for them. I have everything so they can join,” she says. “And the people were saying to me ‘you are not a good girl, why are you encouraging girls for bicycle? The bicycle is not good for girl.’

“They are very narrow-minded. I was trying so hard to make it part of our norms. My aim was in 2021 to have more than 100 girl cyclists.” 

Despite limited resources and growing backlash, Rukhsar and her club members were determined to continue encouraging more women to join them. “We don’t have enough professional bikes for cycling, no nutritionist, no cycling equipment, and no place for a cycling practice,” she recalls. “But we never stopped and still we were trying hard to achieve our goals to make it in our norms, to make it a part of our culture, and to encourage other girls to participate in cycling.” 

Rukhsar’s activism attracted the attention of a German TV crew and she featured in a documentary on female cyclists in Afghanistan. As a result of the publicity she had received, she knew she would be a target for the Taliban once they took over.  

“It was very terrible, like, ‘oh my god, they know me very well, my home address, everything, that I’m a cyclist, they don’t like active women or those women who are struggling for women’s rights, like I did, still I do,’” she says.” So I was very worried. I was in a deep depression. I had a lot of mental problems.

“That’s why I made the decision very difficult to leave my country, my homeland. The place where I was born,” she explains.  

Leaving

Once the Taliban took over, Rukhsar knew that her only option was to try to escape the country via an evacuation flight.  

“It was a very difficult decision,” Rukhsar says of leaving Afghanistan “I really love my country. I love it. But the problem is the Taliban take the government and they control the government and women are not allowed to go outside. That’s why I decided to leave my country”

Eventually, she got onto an evacuation flight with help from contacts through the German embassy. However, before she could make it onto the flight she first had to navigate Kabul airport.

“I was two days and two nights outside of the Kabul airport without any food, without any water,” she recalls. ”Kabul airport was very difficult to enter. Like all of Afghanistan, people from the villages, from the provinces, were trying to enter Kabul airport because they heard that the US Army came for evacuating. That’s why everyone was trying to enter the Kabul airport, more than 20,000 people.” 

She was told of the dangers of being at the airport by the team escorting her. “[They] told me to not go to the Kabul airport – ‘[it] is dangerous, maybe an explosion will happen and you will die,'” she recalls. “I said it’s OK for me – I take this risk to save my life.” 

Questioned by the Taliban as to her motives for leaving, Rukhsar was forced to lie that she had a husband in the US. “I lied to them because of my life, to save my life,” she explains. 

On the other side

After finally being allowed to leave the country, Rukhsar was taken to a US military base in Germany via Qatar before making it to the US where she spent several weeks at an immigration centre in New Jersey. Now, she is settled in another state. 

Despite the adversity she has faced, Rukhsar has held steadfast to her dream of representing her country at the Olympics as well as continuing to study dentistry. Nicola Cranmer of US-based women’s squad Team Twenty24 had been in contact with Rukhsar while she was in Afghanistan. Now that she is in the US, Cranmer has offered her a place on the team for two seasons. 

“Rukhsar and I stayed in touch as best we could and it just kept going back to her dream of cycling,” says Cranmer. “It’s a dream that she’s had since she was a little girl, and she’s such a tough, feisty, strong woman that she was so determined that she went ahead and just did it anyway.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and I can tell just by her personality already, and the things that she’s done, and the risks that she’s taken, and how driven she is to succeed, everything, that she’s going to be a great bike racer.”

For Rukhsar, the focus is a welcome relief from the trauma and sacrifice that she has made to get to safety. “I have mental problems because I am far away from my loved ones, from my parents,” she says. “It’s very difficult to leave everything.

“This team will bring me to my goals. Hopefully this team will make me so happy in spite of this problem I have. So maybe I will start from zero. I am a senior student of dentistry college but maybe I will start from zero. Some of my Cheetah Cycling team members are here, two of them, so still we have hope that we can ride together … So like before we can be again together.”

If you want to help support Rukhsar in her new life in the US, follow the link to donate to a fundraiser set up by Nicola Cranmer.

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