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Women cycling in Afghanistan as part of the first national women’s cycling team

Afghan Women Fight Corruption for the Right to Ride

They’ve been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and featured in films and books. They were 2016 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. They broke barriers with their sport. But for the Afghan women’s national cycling team the biggest barriers are ironically the same institutions that are in place to allow them to compete.

Now a New York Times piece has alleged that corruption, mismanagement, and abuse is crippling the team and focuses on their ongoing battle. According to the article, Haji Abdul Sediq Seddiqi, team coach and head of the Afghan Cycling Federation (ACF), is at the center of the scandals, and as a financial supporter of the team, I’ve personally confronted him about the many allegations and rumors, which he denies.

Last month, I withdrew my formal support of the ACF—raised through my nonprofit Mountain2Mountain. But I’m not done fighting for the girls.

An Enduring Taboo

The members of the Afghan women’s national cycling team were chosen as Adventurers of the Year not because of the races they’ve won (they haven’t) or the records they’ve broken (none) but because of their bravery through the revolutionary act they undertake every time they ride a bike. In Afghanistan girls have never been allowed to ride bikes—its one of the few countries left in the world where women riding bikes remains taboo. The young women of the national cycling team are breaking one of the last great gender barriers by pedaling in a two-wheeled revolution—one that demands equality.

They risk their lives when they ride, but each time they ride they change perceptions. Over the three years that I worked with the team, I saw how the sport of cycling helped to normalize bikes for girls. A second team in Bamiyan has formed under the direction of a young woman named Zahra Hosseini. A girls’ bike club formed in Kabul two summers ago, and this year a coed bike club was founded so that boys and girls could ride together in solidarity through the streets of Kabul.

I’ve worked in Afghanistan for eight years, inside women’s prisons, building a school for the deaf, creating computer labs, and distributing school supplies in remote mountain villages. I became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan because I was curious about the gender barrier that prevented women from riding bikes—from independent mobility.

Four years after that first ride, almost to the day, I met the members of the women’s national cycling team and began working to support them as a team in order to normalize bikes for all girls, because they are access—they are freedom. Bikes are affordable, easily accessible, and often the best mode of transportation in urban cities. But if girls aren’t allowed to ride, they don’t have the same opportunities or access as boys do. So the sport can literally be a catalyst for freedom.

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Members of the women’s Afghan cycling team prepare for a training ride in front of the Buddha niches in Bamian, Afghanistan. Photograph Deni Bechard

How Women Are Winning

Although it may shock many in the West who may see the Times story as a sign that change is impossible and that supporting programs in Afghanistan is a hopeless cause, I’m thrilled that the story is providing much needed ammunition in the continued fight for these women’s right to ride. I spoke with Rod Nordland, the story’s author, several weeks ago when he contacted me to ask about my withdrawal of support for the ACF, and I shared my experiences and frustrations.

Change doesn’t happen in silence. Voices, many voices, must be willing to speak up to challenge corruption and abuse. Even as I write this, I hear news that there may be a new Afghan Olympic Committee president despite the continued disputes since the election last year. It’s just another sign of the lack of leadership and stability and the corruption that have plagued the sporting institutions in Afghanistan from the very top of the food chain all the way down.

This affects not just the women but the men’s teams as well. Corruption is genderless in Afghanistan, but as in all things there, it’s usually worse for women. When women are forced to remain within structures where the men are in the positions of power—even something as empowering as cycling, or soccer, or cricket—it becomes another source of oppression and entrapment.

The short-term development plan that I’ve been working on involves bringing the girls to the U.S. this fall for a training workshop. Long term, I hope to create an all-Afghan women’s cycling team in Colorado that could support and train these women as racers, coaches, and trainers and help them develop the leadership skills they need and set an example for all the female sports federations. This plan allows us to bypass the majority of the institutional corruption and empower Afghan women to be in charge of developing the women’s cycling program themselves.

In over 20 visits to Afghanistan I’ve seen what happens when women stand up and use their voices. Equality isn’t given—its fought for every step of the way. Afghan women are fighting, they are marching in the streets, and they are riding bikes, each action giving strength to the voices that are drowned out by the patriarchy and corruption and oppression that still dominates the majority of Afghanistan. Women are winning—they are participating in government, in the police force, and in sports despite the risks and despite the barriers. Together we must continue this fight alongside these young women and all the others around the world like them.

They may be Adventurers of the Year, but they cannot continue to ride alone.

Shannon Galpin is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and the founder of the nonprofit, Mountain2Mountain. She has worked and traveled in Afghanistan for eight years, spearheading dozens of projects, including the groundbreaking “Streets of Afghanistan” art installation. She is the author of Mountain to Mountain and Streets of Afghanistan and is a producer on the upcoming documentary Afghan Cycles, premiering in 2017. Galpin was recognized by the International Olympic Committee for her work promoting gender equity through sports and has been featured in press and media around in the world.