Women in Afghanistan are rediscovering a vehicle of freedom that has galvanized social change since the turn of the 20th century: the bicycle.
Transportation by bicycle is no foreign concept to the people of Afghanistan, specifically those in the nation’s capitol, Kabul. Indeed, Dr Ahmed Abdul Javid, the former Chancellor of Kabul University, reminisces about the decade that he calls the “golden period for Afghans,” when the relatively liberal city flourished as a popular tourist destination during treks between Europe and Asia. As former journalist and Kabul native Farah Hawad recalls, “Afghanistan was the first Asian country that had women in parliament,” an act that invokes an impression of progressiveness about the now conservative country. But since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 the lives of women have been affected drastically.
It now seems, however, that the pendulum is swinging in a new direction. Things are changing, and women are becoming more visible in public. The number of women in the workplace and in universities is increasing, and Afghanistan now has its first women’s national bicycling team. The team, funded largely by nonprofit Mountain2Mountain, bravely faces strong social taboos against women riding bicycles, and often has to endure shouts, leers, and threats of physical violence. Through these outward criticisms the 10 members of the Afghan National cycling team keep their helmets held high. “For us,” says Marj Sidiqui, assistant coach of the national team, “the bicycle is a symbol of freedom.”
The national team, who hoping to go to the Olympics, train in dangerous conditions, conceding to requirements of Muslim modesty despite the heat through their long sleeves, long pants, and headscarves tucked under helmets. Dodging trucks and traffic, as well as the hostility of onlookers, the team pedals proudly. “I just want to introduce to the world the women of Afghanistan, and show that they are able to do the same things that other women are able to do,” says Sidiqui.
The bicycle has acted as a medium of change for women in the US, too. As Sue Macy writes in her book Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom, women used the bike as a visual representation of the shifting times at the turn of the 20th century, which changed the lives of women forever. Macy writes that for women of the early 20th century, the bike was “a steed upon which they rode to a new world.”
For assistant coach Sidiqui, cycling is a means of promoting a more open-minded society. “We’re riding in front of all of these men,” she says, “and I’m sure some of their minds have opened up.” The team is creating national and international dialogue, putting Afghan women and sports on the map. She and the other members of Afghan National team are a racing-clad symbol of hope for women across Afghanistan, proving that a wheel in motion stays in motion.