Articles

Evacuation of Afghan women cyclists

September 2021 | Afghanistan

“My eyes could see the desert and my skin could feel the wind. When I was on the bike, I felt free” recalls Afghan cyclist Masomah Ali Zada. She was forced to flee Afghanistan with her family in 2016 because of the social pressures she experienced as a female rider and the threat of Taliban brutality — “the Taliban wouldn’t let me cycle because I’m a woman.”

For the past decade, Afghan women cyclists have become a ‘right to ride’ movement. These women have defied gender stereotypes, inspired the world, and have risked their lives to ride a bike.

For these trailblazing women, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan ends life as they know it and they are at high risk of retribution. We are supporting these women and have established a fund to aid in evacuating and resettling them, along with their families and allied activists.

Where it all started
Beginning in 2011, the first handful of Afghan women to train as cyclists began in Kabul. Ten years later, a revolution on two wheels was sweeping the country, with recognised women’s teams in seven regions. Women competed in both road and cycling races, as well as BMX competitions. Bike clubs arose as a regular social activity led by the young women themselves. 

These women of the first National Cycling Team cracked open the gender barrier that kept girls off bikes. And while all sports have benefits to young people in regards to increased confidence and better health outcomes, there is now international recognition that cycling is a simple, low cost and effective tool for development and a means of achieving national and international development goals.

The team was recognised as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year in 2015 and were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. They are the subjects of ‘Afghan Cycles’, a feature-length documentary that follows the evolution of Afghanistan’s first national cycling team in five years. 

The recent turn of events
“Women are burning their cycling kit and diplomas, erasing social media histories, and erasing themselves to avoid retribution. The worst that can happen is that these women can be killed.” says Shannon Galpin, who has spent thirteen years of her life working and cycling alongside Afghan women in a post-Taliban, war-torn Afghanistan. 

Since 2013, Shannon has delivered over 65 bikes and cycling equipment in partnership with Liv Cycling. She coached and trained the former Cycling Federation President, and has also supported the trips for racing outside of Afghanistan. She was the first woman to mountain bike across Afghanistan in 2009 and has ridden her bike across the nation. She speaks about the use of cycling as a tool for social change and as a vehicle for women’s rights at conferences and at the UN Human Rights Council on a regular basis.

The collapse of Afghanistan on 8th August mobilised Shannon to help evacuate the Afghan women’s cycling team, as well as other female athletes. Working with a coalition of players including iProbono, Shannon has been able to evacuate athletes and secure emergency visas, but there are still many that remain trapped, currently in hiding.

Where will the funds go?
This fund will assist in the evacuation, resettlement and long-term relationship building of young Afghan women who rode bikes. Recognising that evacuation is only the first step, we need to support these girls with visa applications and relocation, as well as enlist the help of the cycling community, so that they may begin to reconstruct their lives and identities, which were painstakingly obliterated during the evacuation. 

In fear of Taliban reprisals, these young women, like so many others, deleted their online presence, burned diplomas, photographs, and cycling gear. In the long run, we plan to bring these girls together for face-to-face outdoor and cycling programmes so that they can stay engaged despite being scattered across the globe. This fund will ensure that we can help them rebuild their lives and reconnect with their culture through exploring different countries where they are resettled on bikes, continuing their advocacy for Afghan women’s right to ride and be free.

For more information, please contact:

Richa Oberoi, Senior Advocacy Officer – richa.oberoi@i-probono.com

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