Parallels
3:42 am
Fri May 2, 2014

Afghan Female Cyclists: Breaking Away, And Breaking Taboos

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 11:38 am

On a recent day, just west of Kabul — where the city's sooty sky gives way to fresher air — Abdul Sadiq coaches four young members of the Afghan National Cycling Federation. They're working on their riding technique while dodging the free-form traffic.

"The road is very narrow. Make sure you don't get into an accident, as you can see the cars are coming," the former competitive cyclist tells them, amid zooming vehicles and honking horns.

They're at Qargha Lake, whose aquamarine waters sit below a snow-sprinkled mountain backdrop of 13,000-foot peaks. It was here in 2012 that Taliban insurgents attacked a resort, killing 18 Afghans.

But this day is all about riding: The cyclists wear long-sleeve jerseys and full-length tights — and draw hoots, honks and open-mouth stares when they pedal past.

These aren't ordinary riders: They're members of Afghanistan's only women's cycling team. And in this deeply conservative country where women have long been confined to the shadows, they face more dangerous obstacles than chaotic roads.

Sadiq, who also founded the national men's cycling team, says he was inspired to form a women's club a few years ago after his daughter expressed interest in learning to ride.

"After my daughter started cycling, the neighborhood girls became interested in cycling, and then the Afghan media did a report on us, and all of a sudden we had a flood of women," he recalls.

Sadiq is wearing a decidedly nontraditional coach outfit consisting of a black corduroy suit and the sharp black shoes Afghan men favor. He says about 100 young women are now involved in cycling in Afghanistan, including 10 or so skilled enough to compete. They were in Pakistan in early April for a race. Soon they'll travel to Kazakhstan for the Asian Cycling Championships.

Despite the team's growing expertise, there is still a ways to go to find acceptance at home.

Coach Sadiq says they try to turn a deaf ear to criticism that Muslim women shouldn't be out riding bicycles. He says his riders have been hit by stones and shot at with slingshots. Assistant coach and lead rider Marjan Sadeqi had a terrifying experience while training last year. She was rammed by a guy on a motorbike and knocked unconscious.

"It was a terrible thing because I was really hurt in my back. I was basically knocked out," Sadeqi says. "I was [injured] for a whole month — five days in hospital and the rest of it at home."

But she wasn't about to give up on her new sport.

"I'm not the kind of woman to be scared. When I make up my mind to do something I'll do it," she says. "So once I recovered I got back on my bike, and here I am cycling again."

Sadeqi is on the short side with a steely disposition. She's decked out in wraparound sunglasses and a yellow and black jersey. Her concession to Muslim modesty on this cool spring day is the baseball cap she wears under her helmet to keep her hair in check. Of course, even on the hottest days she's still obliged to cover up in full-length workout togs.

Not too long ago, Sadeqi and her teammates had to crank along on old steel-framed clunkers with kickstands. But today they're riding smooth-shifting carbon-fiber racing bikes thanks to the nonprofit group Mountain 2 Mountain, which has been supplying these women with high-tech gear for the past two years.

Whatever the equipment, Sadeqi is the linchpin. The 25-year-old cyclist grew up in Iran. She says her parents don't even know she's a racer. But her husband supports her career. He's open-minded, she says. And she hopes women's cycling can help make Afghan society more open-minded, too.

"Of course it has helped. ... We are riding in front of all these men and I'm sure some of them, their minds have opened up," she says. "I just want to introduce to the world the women of Afghanistan, that they are able to do anything any other women are able to do."

As the training day ends, the young women say their goodbyes and pile their bikes into the back of an old van with some blankets to pad the clanking frames. Someday they hope to have a proper transport vehicle, complete with bicycle rack.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we're going to take a bike ride with women through Afghanistan. Life for women in that country has changed a lot in the last decade or so. Many women no longer hide in public. They are more prominent on university campuses and in the work force. Even the claustrophobic burqa has been modified - a bit. Some burqas now sport a shortened front.

And there's this. If you look up at just the right moment, you might glimpse members of Afghanistan's only women's bicycling team streaking by. NPR's Peter Breslow went along.

ABDUL SADIQ: (Through translator) The road is very narrow. Make sure you don't get into an accident. As you can see, the cars are coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: Just west of Kabul where the city's sooty sky gives way to fresher air, coach Abdul Sadiq cautions the four young women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation. Today they're working on their riding technique while dodging the freeform traffic.

SADIQ: There has to be a space.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (through translator) Of course it's dangerous. Every time we hear a car coming we kind of look twice and then get to the side to avoid an accident.

BRESLOW: We're at Qargha Lake whose aquamarine waters give way to a snow sprinkled mountain backdrop of 13,000 foot peaks. It was here in 2012 Taliban insurgents attacked a resort killing 18 Afghans. But today is about riding as cyclists in long sleeve jerseys and full length tights draw hoots, honks and open mouth stares when they pedal past.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEDDLING)

SADIQ: (speaks Arabic)

BRESLOW: Abdul Sadiq doesn't quite look like a coach today. He's dressed in a black corduroy suit and wears the sharp black shoes Afghan men favor. A former competitive rider and founder of the men's team, Sadiq says he was inspired to form a women's club a few of years ago after his daughter expressed interest in learning to ride.

SADIQ: (through translator) So then after my daughter started cycling the neighborhood girls became interested in cycling and then the Afghan media reported and did a report on us and all of a sudden we had a flood of women.

BRESLOW: Sadiq says there are now around 100 young women involved in cycling in Afghanistan with 10 or so skilled enough to compete. They were in Pakistan in early April for a race. Soon they'll travel to Kazakstan for the Asian Cycling Championships. But despite the team's growing expertise there is still a ways to go to find acceptance here at home.

SADIQ: (speaks Arabic)

BRESLOW: Coach Sadiq says they try to turn a deaf ear to criticism that Muslim women shouldn't be out riding bicycles. He says his riders have been hit by stones and shot at with slingshots. Assistant coach and lead rider Marjan Sadeqi had a terrifying experience while riding last year. She was rammed by a guy on a motorbike and knocked unconscious.

MARJAN SADEQI: (through translator) It was a terrible thing because I really hurt my back. I was injured for a whole month, five days in the hospital and the rest of the time at home.

BRESLOW: But she wasn't about to give up on her new sport.

SADEQI: (through translator) I'm not the kind of woman to be scared. When I make up my mind to do something I do it. So once I recovered I got back on my bike and here I am cycling again.

BRESLOW: Marjan is on the short side with a square jawed disposition. She's decked out in wraparound sunglasses and a yellow and black jersey. Her concession to Muslim modesty on this cool spring day is the baseball cap she wears under her helmet to keep her hair in check. Of course even on the hottest days she's still obliged to cover up in full length workout togs.

Not too long ago Marjan and her teammates had to crank along on old steel framed clunkers with kick stands. But today they're riding smooth shifting carbon fiber racing bikes. That's thanks to the non-profit Mountain 2 Mountain which has been supplying these young women with high tech gear for the past two years.

Whatever the equipment Marjan Sadeqi is the lynchpin. The cyclist, who is 25, grew up in Iran. She says her parents don't even know she's a racer. But her husband supports her career. He's open minded, she says, and she hopes women's cycling can help make Afghan society more open minded too.

SADEQI: (through translator) Of course this helps. As you see, we are riding in front of all these men and I'm sure some of them, their minds have opened up. And I think, you know, I just want to introduce to the world the women of Afghanistan and show that they are able to do the same things other women are able to do.

(LAUGHTER)

BRESLOW: As the training day ends the young women say their goodbyes and pile their bikes into the back of an old van with some blankets to pad the clanking frames. Someday, they hope to have a proper transport vehicle complete with bicycle rack. Peter Breslow, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.