Adventurer Shannon Galpin’s Memoir Explores Women’s Rights and Bikes in Afghanistan

The first women's National Cycling Team of Afghanistan; Photograph by Jayme Moye
The first women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan; Photograph by Jayme Moye

Taking action looks different for everyone. For Shannon Galpin, her action takes the form of empowering women and girls in conflict regions and her vehicle of change is the bicycle. In 2008, Shannon, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, traveled to Afghanistan for the first time. Since then she has been the first woman to ride a mountain bike in the country and to ride across the Panjshir Valley, and she has supported and witnessed a burgeoning movement of women daring to ride bicycles in the face of adversity.

This week, Shannon is releasing her first book, Mountain to Mountain. This deeply personal and moving memoir tells the story of her work in Afghanistan and the women who have changed her path in life. But more than that, it is a tale of adventure, heartbreak, joy and laughter, struggle and triumph, and what it means to dare to believe, to connect, and to take action—no matter what it looks like.
In the days before her book launch in New York City, I caught up with Shannon to ask her a few questions about the journey so far and where she’s going from here.

Mountain to Mountain-200Adventure: You just wrote a book! How does it feel?

Shannon Galpin: It’s really starting to sink in that not only did I write a book, which seems a little like a dream I’m just waking up from, and also that my personal life is about to get really public. That’s a definite “oh my gosh” moment.

A: This is a deeply personal memoir. What prompted you to tell your story? And what do you hope to accomplish?

SG: Once I had an epiphany in my own head that my motivations with my work, and my passion, were deeply tied to my own past experiences with gender violence, then I also realized that sharing that story was at the heart of fight for women’s rights. Having a voice is empowering, it’s the source of our strength and at the core of all activist movements. The choices I make in the work I do, the choices in the way I live my life, and my choices as a mother of a young daughter all come back to fighting the fight for women’s rights because as President Jimmy Carter has stated in his latest book: “The violence and subjugation of women is the  ‘worst and most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on Earth.'” I also wanted to address the choices I make as an adventurer, an explorer, and a activist, and how that integrates into my life as a mother. I hope that the book inspires others to use their voice, to find their authentic self and live it, warts and all, and to realize how bloody hard that is, but also how rewarding.

A: Why Afghanistan? What initially called you to this place, to these women, and to take action?

SG: That’s the million dollar question. To take action? That’s because my sister was raped at college at the same time I became a mother to my daughter. Because the rage I felt inside because of the helplessness to protect my sister, and knowing I would be just as helpless at protecting my daughter meant that the world had to change. I was not willing to sit on the sidelines and complain about the injustice, it was time to enter the fight myself. I am still not sure I know why Afghanistan. A mix of politics, the US involvement and lack of understanding of the country, a desire to humanize Afghans to Americans that watch Fox News, and the romantic history of the region, including the Silk Road and the Hippy Trail, and the knowledge that here was a country repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. That’s  hell of a place to start.

A: When you first traveled to Afghanistan (what year was that, btw?), did you ever imagine where this journey would take you?

SG: I first traveled to Afghanistan in 2008 and have returned 18 times since that initial exploratory visit. I had no clue that I would end where I am now, or that I would have had the experiences I have, but that’s the funny thing when you simply make the commitment to move forward authentically—life unfolds in beautiful ways. I look back now and it looks as though a trail of breadcrumbs led me here. But the fact that I allowed myself to create and work and make mistakes on the ideas and projects that inspired me, from street art to women’s prisons to cycling, means that everything I’ve done has had real meaning to me.

A: Your vehicle of change is the bicycle. What is it about a bicycle that is so empowering?

SG: The bike is metaphorically and literally a symbol of freedom. I think because we all learn to ride bikes before we learn to drive a car, and we do so at such a young age that the bike is the first thing that really opens up the world. The world is ‘out there’ ready to be explored and the wheel is so much more liberating than our feet. The wind in our face, and the road racing beneath us. It’s the epitome of freedom. I know myself, as a mountain biker, that there is nothing that makes me smile bigger and feel stronger than riding dirt trails in my backyard.

A: In Afghanistan, women riding bicycles is seen as controversial, provocative, and immoral. How have you seen some of these negative social constructs broken down by the women cyclists of Afghanistan?

SG: I consider myself extremely lucky to bear witness to this taboo being challenged by young women in real time. When I started riding in 2009, I never saw Afghan girls or women riding, and no man when asked about it would consider allowing his daughter or sister to ride. In a short space of time, with sports, education, politics, and activism presenting new opportunities for women to embrace, cycling has been the last deep seated-taboo to be challenged and due to its public nature, my hope is that the sport of cycling normalizes bikes for women and girls. Allowing girls to ride bikes to school, midwives to ride bikes to increase their access for care, and for young women to have cheap transportation as a tool to fight gender violence and sexual harassment in the streets.

A: What are some of the toughest challenges you’ve had to overcome since starting on this journey? In Afghanistan and/or elsewhere.

SG: The toughest challenge has been to simply stay the course. Financially, I have risked everything over the past six years to pull off projects and do the work full time. But even tougher, has been ignoring critics that have never been to Afghanistan who want to comment on my work and the way I do it, or that I choose to explore the country as a woman by bike and by motorcycle, or that I have taken the physical and financial risks that I have as a mother.

A: How do you stay focused, motivated and inspired in the face of adversity?

SG: I wake up most mornings incredibly excited about what I do, and acutely aware of the enormity of the issues I’m fighting on a global scale. I have faced months where I have no more than $20 in my bank account, and I’m tired of the stress. But when I think about giving it all up for a ‘regular’ job, whatever that is, I remember how lucky I am. I love what I do. Every damn day. It’s worth it because I can’t imagine doing anything else. No matter how hard it is, no matter how often I wonder if I am making a difference, it is exactly what I want to be doing.

A: If you could give our readers just one way to take action in their own lives, what would you tell them?

SG: Most people think their actions are simply too small. I think its a matter of asking yourself what do you care about? My daughter cares about snow leopards losing their habitat and going extinct. So in the 3rd grade she held a fundraiser at school, put up posters about snow leopards and their habitat and the reasons they are going extinct and raised $250 to adopt a snow leopard for the school. She used her voice about something she cared about, inspired others to get involved, and contributed to a cause she cares about. Would she rather be tracking them in the Himalaya? Yes, she would. But for a 3rd grader its a great first step. Fracking, food deserts, clean water, animal rights, gender violence, whatever it is that moves you, simply look at small ways to take action and see where that takes you.

Learn more about Shannon’s work, here. Her first book, Mountain to Mountain isavailable to purchase online.