Peddling Freedom

Selling the complex issue of equality in Afghanistan, one pedal at a time.

Words by Feet Banks. Photos by Jenny Nichols and Claudia Lopez.

The Women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan training outside Kabul.
The Women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan training outside Kabul. Mohammad Ismail/Reuters photo.

“There is nothing simple about a girl getting on a bike in Afghanistan,” says filmmaker Sarah Menzies from her home in Seattle, Washington. “One woman we filmed would cover her face in interviews because 30 years ago she’d ridden a bike and was still fearful that her husband would find out.”

Technically legal, and not quite forbidden by the Quran, a woman riding a bicycle is still very taboo in Afghanistan. “It remains a culture that keeps women at home and a culture where men make decisions for women,” Menzies says, adding: “There is still the outdated belief that putting a bike between a young woman’s legs will compromise her gynecological health. In some parts of the country a girl on a bike is a death wish.”

Riding on terrain other than established roads or goat paths is highly dangerous—Afghanistan is one of the most land-mined countries on the planet.

And yet for all of that her upcoming film Afghan Cycles focus neither on oppression nor victimization. “It’s about bravery and heroes,” Menzies explains. “I believe that a story driven by hope is much more powerful than one driven by sorrow.”

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The film idea came to Menzies through Shannon Galpin, who’d founded the organization Mountain2Mountain to create education and opportunity for women around the globe. “Shannon had just been using the bicycle to get around Afghanistan,” Menzies explains. “As a six-foot-tall white woman riding into towns she attracted a lot of attention [from men], and so she would ask Do your daughters ride? Do your wives ride? The answer was always No.”

Along the way Galpin discovered a newly formed Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team in Kabul. Supported by Mountain2Mountain, the woman’s team consists of 16 – 24-year-old Kabul locals who train with the Men’s National Team and are recognized by the Afghan Olympic Association. The initial concept was to film a short piece about this team of Olympic hopefuls, but after an initial trip to Afghanistan in May of 2013, the focus shifted: Menzies discovered young women riding together in other parts of the country—and for other reasons.

“When you give a girl or young woman a bicycle you’re also giving them mobility and independence,” says Menzies. “A vehicle to get from point A to point B without relying on men, whether to get to school more safely or just get around in a more efficient manner.”

The sight of girls on bikes is still uncommon throughout most of Afghanistan, even more progressive areas like Kabul.
The sight of girls on bikes is still uncommon throughout most of Afghanistan, even more progressive areas like Kabul. Claudia Lopez photo.

Slated for release in early 2016, Afghan Cycles is a feature-length documentary film telling the story of young Afghan women who challenge gender barriers and put their lives at risk for the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle.

But old traditions die hard in Afghanistan. During filming Menzies heard stories of female cyclists having handlebars jabbed into their backs by men passing on motorcycles, or having stones thrown at them. In the spring of 2014, the country’s presidential elections resulted in heavy Taliban attacks and unrest, forcing the girls to quit riding for six months. Even in times of comparative peace, riding on terrain other than established roads or goat paths is highly dangerous—Afghanistan is one of the most land-mined countries on the planet.

“Cultural context plays a huge role there,” Menzies explains. “Just understanding the reality these girls live in—riding past blown-out buildings and people walking the streets with ak-47 rifles. Everyone has a story of losing a family member or friend in a suicide attack. It’s a conflict zone and I had to see it myself to really understand that these girls are under constant threat simply because of where they live.”

Nevertheless, the promise of change and positivity is easy to find. While women in rural Afghanistan often still wear the full burka covering, the winds of change are blowing. “Places like Kabul and Bamyan are a bit more liberal, a bit more progressive. You are even seeing girls in jeans. For me that is a cool parallel—something once considered taboo is now normal. Afghans are definitely capable of changing with the times. The girl who was knocked off her bike and hospitalized by the guy with the motorcycle handlebar? The governor of that province tracked him down and put him in jail. There are people there, men and women, saying ‘This behaviour is outdated.’”

A group of women rides through the busy streets of Kabul with the goal of normalizing the image of girls on bicycles. Jenny Nichols photo.
A group of women rides through the busy streets of Kabul with the goal of normalizing the image of girls on bicycles. Jenny Nichols photo.

Menzies admits that even as more Afghan women take to cycling, ironically it remains men who will create any real shift of acceptance. “The girls profiled in the film have permission from their fathers and brothers, and in one case a husband. Having the support of the men in their lives is unique, so showing the stories of these men will potentially be effective in changing the minds of other men outside of more progressive zones like Kabul.”

All that is still a bit peripheral though, to the women actually riding the bikes. “The girls in our film are so innocent,” Menzies says. “They don’t see themselves as little freedom fighters, none of them is demanding equality or saying, ‘Fuck the Man!’ They’re just doing it because they love riding a bike—they just want the wind in their face. And yet they’re still breaking gender barriers, so one of the tricky parts of making the film was showing how badass these girls are, even if they aren’t saying it themselves.”

There is nothing simple about getting a girl on a bike in Afghanistan. But once she’s on, it’s easy to understand why she’d want to stay there.

Afghan Cycles continues to work with Mountain2Mountain.org to help pedal/peddle a revolution. Learn more and watch a trailer for the film at afghancycles.com. Also, please visit their kickstarter campaign.

Afghan Cycles Trailer from LET MEDIA on Vimeo.


Self-expression Equals Self-empowerment

One of the images of Afghanistan that will stay with me forever is a woman in ultra-conservative Jalalabad walking the street without a burka. That I could see her face, placid as it was while she went about her daily business, it still stood out as an act of defiance, and I wondered what gave her that strength of conviction. In this same town we’d been asked to remove the teeter-totters from a playground we’d built at a girl’s school for fear these might endanger virginal sanctity. Such anachronisms contrast sharply with the reality of seeing girls playing in a place of their own; a space where they set the social norms, swinging as high as possible, often two or three at a time. Such self-expression builds confidence. Confidence fuels hope. And hope? Well, that has the power to change everything.

Kirby Brown is a board member of Playgroundbuilders.org. To date the Whistler-based charity has constructed 186 playgrounds in various conflict zones, including over 120 in Afghanistan alone.

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