Afghan women cyclists defiant in face of Taliban resurgence
On a sweltering afternoon in mid-June, some 50 young women lined up for Afghanistan’s Tour de Bamiyan, the race from which the national cycling team will be chosen.
As the Taliban has continued its seemingly inexorable advance across the country this summer, Bamiyan, site of the giant Buddha statues the militant group blasted into oblivion in 2001, has been a beacon of relative calm. Many of these women have travelled great distances to showcase their skills – a testament to the dedication of those so long deprived of an opportunity to compete.
Biking has proven a tough taboo to break in Afghanistan. The women’s cycling team was nominally established in 1986, but cycling has really only been a sport in the post-Taliban era. A handful of years ago, less than 100 Afghan women were riding bikes. Still, following the fall of the Taliban, years of activism, aided by international pressure, created a space for women in the public sphere. Despite this, increasing sporting opportunities for women remained a slower process.
Biking has proven a tough taboo to break in Afghanistan. The women’s cycling team was nominally established in 1986, but cycling has really only been a sport in the post-Taliban era
Shannon Gilpin, head of Mountain2Mountain charity, was instrumental in getting the women’s cycling team off the ground. In 2013, while mountain biking across the country, she discovered that a small group of women had formed their own national cycling team. Poorly equipped but eager to ride, many of the women had learned to ride as refugees in Iran and Pakistan. As there were no races for women in Afghanistan, Gilpin’s charity equipped and paid for the team to compete in international tournaments.
Gilpin describes the progress she has witnessed in the last decade. “Since my first mountain bike rides in 2009 I have seen incredible progress for women and girls. The inclusion of women in cycling has become a ‘right to ride movement’ that illustrates the necessity of promoting biking for social justice and freedom of mobility.”
While there has undoubtedly been progress across much of the country today, cycling for women is still seen as un-Islamic and immoral. Women have been threatened, assaulted and shot at all for riding a bike.
Yaldoz Hashemi, one of the women competing in Bamiyan, still faces regular harassment and recalls an incident in which someone tried to hit her with a car as she cycled. She hopes greater visibility will help change mindsets and lead to broader acceptance but accepts that being on the national team has put her life at risk. “I can’t go to my home village in Almar [southwestern Faryab province, currently under Taliban control] because the Taliban will kill me,” she told The New Arab.
As a young girl, Hashemi dreamt of being a cyclist, but she only took up the sport a few years ago, in 2018 at the age of 21. Yet she has already achieved success, winning the Gawhar Shad Cup in Kabul in March, and set her sights on bigger goals. “My dream is to represent Afghanistan in big tournaments abroad like the women's Tour de France, and Giro d'Italia Femminile, to win those races for my country and make everyone in Afghanistan proud,” says Hashemi.
My dream is to represent Afghanistan in big tournaments abroad like the women's Tour de France, and Giro d'Italia Femminile, to win those races for my country and make everyone in Afghanistan proud
Beyond the religious taboo, the next great challenge has been corruption. The advocates who initially supported and enabled women cycling, for instance, ended up destroying the first wave of cyclists. In 2016 the Afghan Cycling Federation collapsed after the head of the men’s team, Abdul Sediq Seddiqi, was found to have taken bikes and racing gear gifted by Mountain2Mountain. The federation sat dormant for two years before it began to rebuild, making huge gains at the institutional and ground levels in the past few years.
Women and girls are riding in social bike clubs, organising protest rides, and engaging in and celebrating the simple act of riding a bike to school. A number of women are now in leadership roles within the federation, which oversees seven provincial teams that compete in a growing number of races for both men and women, in road cycling, mountain biking and BMX.
Afghanistan’s bigger cities have begun to embrace cycling as a key part of the urban landscape, as bike lanes have begun to pop up in Kabul and Kandahar, with new lanes in Herat, Jalalabad, Khost, and Mazar-e-Sharif delayed due to the security situation.
Fazli Ahmad Fazli, president of the Afghan Cycling Federation, aims to boost women's participation with three further races planned for later in the year but is well aware the Taliban could jeopardise that vision. “The situation is getting worse, and we are all concerned,” he said. “I will be working with all related parties to ensure our races continue. I will also be looking to other Muslim countries where women have made great gains in sporting competitions in recent years. I am hopeful that even with the Taliban in power, women will not be prevented from cycling.”
Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban remain stalled as the militant group continues to gain large chunks of territory, leading to rising fears that female cyclists could lose all of their recent gains. Under Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, women were barred from sports and from nearly all participation in public life.
Back then a women’s cycling team would have been impossible, unthinkable. The Taliban recently said it controls 85 percent of the country, and in recent weeks, reports have emerged of severe restrictions placed on women in areas under its control – such as being barred from leaving home without a hijab and a male companion.
“I fear for my future and the future of the country,” says Hashemi. “I’ve heard that many people are leaving the country, but I will not leave. As women, we spent too long fighting for our rights for them to be taken away. I’ll continue to cycle until the Taliban stops me.”
Hannah Wallace is a London-based writer and researcher on armed violence and foreign affairs