As U.S. and NATO forces made plans to wind down their 11-year-long campaign in Afghanistan, mountain biker and activist Shannon Galpin was ramping up efforts to bring attention to women’s rights in this war-torn nation. Where many foreigners saw only despair and chaos, Galpin and a group of photographers saw beauty. The pain of war, peaceful moments, laughter, and natural beauty—these images defined the modern Afghanistan.
“This is an example of using art as activism and photography as voice,” says Galpin. “Just because there is daily violence doesn’t mean there isn’t daily life.”
In late October 2012, five locations in and around Kabul came alive with life-size photos in a street art exhibition called "Streets of Afghanistan." Security was a serious concern. The day Galpin brought the show to Istalif, a remote village north of Kabul, a suicide bomber killed 41 people in the northern province of Fayrab.
Galpin and her team moved 28 images to central gathering spots via a minibus and were careful to keep their plans a secret. It worked. Old men gathered to chat. Small girls touched the photos. In the village of Istalif, young boys stood for 20 minutes in front of a photo of bustling Kabul, a place they had never seen in person.
Originally Galpin organized "Streets of Afghanistan," a collection of photos and portraits of everyday Afghanistan from foreign and Afghan photographers, to be on display in Colorado mountain towns. Her intention was to connect affluent American mountain communities with her cause. Reconfiguring the show into street art was the next step.
“It’s easy to do a gallery show in Paris or London. But the place where [they] need to happen in the world are the places where people don’t have a voice,” she says. “The Afghan people don’t have magazines or galleries. They don’t see the myriad of images that are taken of their country by photographers and journalists. I wanted Afghans to see their own culture, their own beauty.”
In 2006, Galpin founded Mountain2Mountain, a nonprofit dedicated to creating education and possibilities for women in conflict regions. Her idea was to connect U.S. mountain communities with mountain communities abroad. She picked Afghanistan because of its high infant mortality rate, years of extreme religious rule, and history of war.
The 38-year-old has braved some of the most violent periods in Afghanistan—a country considered by many humanitarian agencies to be the worst place in the world to be a woman—to work on women’s education and health. She fostered midwife training to combat infant and maternal mortality in the Panjshir Province. In Kabul and Kandahar, she helped develop reading programs for the daughters of women in prisons, some of whom were jailed for adultery after they were raped or for escaping arranged marriages.
She has used her bicycle as an icebreaker with village elders in remote mountain villages, and in a particularly bold fundraising act, she’s mountain biked 140 miles across the Panjshir Valley. In Afghanistan, women cannot ride bikes because of laws and social customs, a fact that Galpin believes has hindered women’s education by preventing them from being able to independently travel to school. As a foreign woman, Galpin was able to cross this boundary and turn it into a conversation starter.
Women’s rights are personal for Galpin. At 19, she survived being raped and knifed while coming home from work in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“I couldn’t think of anything worse beyond what had happened than being labeled a victim,” says Galpin. “I was petrified that I would be viewed that way and would have to wear that label for the rest of my life.”
Adventure: While most know you as an activist, two-wheeled vehicles never seem far away from the conversation. You’re known to ride a motorcycle around Kabul. You bring your mountain bike on many of your trips. Does your passion for biking overlap with activism?
Shannon Galpin: I launched Mountain2Mountain the same time I became a mountain biker. I think there is something very different about embracing a sport that you know wholeheartedly is going to make you bloody. You know you are going to crash when you mountain bike. There is no way to get better if you don’t crash. I think there is a synergy in it. When women first started using the bike in the 1800s, it was literally a vehicle for their empowerment. They broke barriers on women’s suffrage and embracing their own freedom of transportation.
A: In 2009, you did some riding around villages and got the idea to ride across the Panjshir Valley to the summit of the 14,000-foot Anjuman Pass. In 2010 you made that traverse happen in part for adventure, in part for fundraising. You had a support team, but still, was that dangerous?
SG: That trip was meant to be three days, balls to the walls, right through, because we didn’t know if it was safe. It was on a road, so it would have been easy for someone to follow us. Easy to kidnap us. Drivers could go past us and go to the next village and warn them. It was much more risky, much more public. We pedaled hard for two days. We passed the last village. We were in no man’s land. There were reports that there were gunrunners on top of the pass. We had to call it quits, but still we rode across the valley.
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A: You’ve been open about the fact that you were raped as a young woman. Has that very violent, terrible moment become a motivator?
SG: My particular experience with violence is not the story. It’s just one of the catalysts. I wanted to take something very dark and use it for good, use it as a source of strength for the work I want to do. It’s not why I rode my mountain bike across Afghanistan. It is one of the reasons why I founded Mountain2Mountain. It sounds corny but I wanted the world to be a better place for my daughter.
A: You’ve been criticized for working in a war zone while you have a seven-year-old back at home. How do you respond to that?
SG: That’s a question I get that I’ve never seen delivered to Greg Mortenson or Conrad Anker, who take great risks with their lives and spend time away from their families. In many ways the choices I make are not in spite of being a mother. I do these things because I am a mother. Because I felt for the whole next generation. Because I saw my daughter’s counterparts not having the same rights and voices she would have access to. There is no room in the world to have that sort of inequity just because of geography.
A: Did the "Streets of Afghanistan" exhibit work out like you had envisioned it?
SG: It’s incredible. It hasn't sunk in yet, as we’ve been going morning to night. But at one point, I looked around this dusty village, saw these images surrounding the market and people laughing, smiling, and sharing with each other and with us their stories, thoughts, and questions. I realized for a split second, Wow … I did this.