In February 2013, Marjan “Mariam” Sadequi pedaled her racing bicycle down a rural highway on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. Her teammates on the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team followed behind. Sadequi was a month out from her first international cycling race, the Asian Cycling Championships, held in New Delhi, India. On training rides, motorists often honked to lend support. On this day, the dark realities of being a woman in a nation that has struggled with human rights since the rise and fall of the Taliban were crystallized.
A group of male motorcyclists pulled alongside Sadequi and began to taunt her. The last thing Sadequi remembers was one of the men purposely veering his motorbike into her, knocking her from her bicycle, and sending her flying to the side of the road, where her teammates found her unconscious moments later. Sadequi was rushed to the hospital, but she was able to rejoin the team in time to travel to New Delhi, where she and her teammates became the first Afghan women to race on the international stage.
The Kabul-based Afghan Women’s Cycling Team was originally formed in 1986, but was scuttled by Soviet and then Taliban rule. In 2011, Abdul Sediq, then the coach of the Afghan National Cycling Federation, fielded an interesting question from his teenage daughter. She asked if she could try cycling.
Even after the fall of Taliban rule in 2001, extreme cultural and religious conservatism remains strong outside of urban, intellectually forward clusters. In a country where only a decade ago women were commanded to stay indoors and avoid spending time in public, women simply didn't ride bikes. Many viewed it as obscene for a woman sit atop a bicycle seat.
Sediq encouraged his daughter to try the sport. He began to build a women’s cycling team that has consisted of ten to as many as 40 women from Kabul. To avoid unwanted attention during training rides, team members forgo the standard cycling kit of tight-fitting spandex and wear pants, loose-fitting shirts, and hijabs beneath their helmets. These days about a dozen women are on the team.
According to former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Shannon Galpin, who has worked extensively in Afghanistan on women’s rights, these women are among the first to ride bikes in Afghanistan.
“This is about inspiring the next generation of girls in Afghanistan to follow their dreams, fight for equality, and gain independent mobility,” says Galpin, who volunteered as a coach back in 2012 and has helped connect the team with American cycling companies willing to donate gear to the team.
The New Delhi race in 2013 could have been discouraging—the team’s contingent simply couldn’t keep up with the other riders who trained full time, and the women failed to complete the course. Instead, the women used it as a launching point to continue racing internationally, first in Pakistan in 2013 and again at the Asian Cycling Championships in Kazakhstan in spring 2014 and South Korea in summer 2014. As a result, women’s cycling has taken root in Afghanistan. There is now another team based out of the city of Bamiyan and an informal group that rides in Kabul.
The team has high hopes for the coming year; the women plan to visit the U.S. to participate in a series of training camps and community events at the U.S. Olympic Training Center before heading to Rio De Janeiro to observe the cycling events at the 2016 Summer Olympics. A feature-length documentary, Afghan Cycles, set to be released in 2016, tells the story of the team and its women, providing the capstone of the team’s evolution.
Adventure: What has been the most difficult moment for you as a member of the team?
Nazifa Hussaini: We competed with 34 countries in an international bike riding competition in India. It was the most difficult competition [we had participated in]. Afghanistan was in the last place. I just feel proud that Afghanistan made it to this competition.
Masooma Alizada: To me, the most difficult situation is when we can’t practice outside for security reasons. Last year we practiced in Qargha daily. This year we practice twice a week in Qargha. We can’t even go to Paghman. It really makes me sad that we can’t continue training and practicing for security reasons in these areas. We will not be able to make any progress if it continues like this.
A: Is there a moment you are particularly proud of?
Frozan Rasooli: When the head of the cycling federation [first] saw me, he told me that I was fat, that I couldn’t ride a bike, and I couldn’t participate in international competitions. I proved that I can. Those words gave me the power to take second place in the team. I am very proud of that.
NH: I invited my mother to [my] first bike riding competition. It took place between public schools. I was awarded third place. When they put the medal round my neck, my mother said, “I am proud of you.” That’s the best memory of my life.
A: Do you ever find people’s reactions discouraging?
MA: Most Afghans think female cyclists are sinners. We were practicing outside when we heard the prayer call, and a man yelled from a car, “Shame on you, it’s prayer call time.” From his perspective, we were committing a sin. It makes me so sad when people think of female cyclists as bad women.
A: What motivates you? For you, is this about making a statement when it comes to women’s rights in Afghanistan? Is it about the thrill of competition? Is it a love of cycling? Or is it just plain fun to ride a bike?
MA: My main goal is to grow this culture of females biking in Afghanistan. Females have the right to use [a] bike as a vehicle for their transport. I love biking; it helps me free myself from all of pain and sadness that we have in Afghanistan.
FR: Riding bikes gives me energy, it has the power to change the common perspective that a woman’s only place is at home raising children and caring for the household. I am in love with riding bikes. When I ride a bike outside, I feel like a king of the streets.