Afghan Cycles: Pushing Gender and Cultural Barriers on Two Wheels

I didn’t go to Afghanistan to ride a bike. Yet six years ago, I started mountain biking in various parts of the country. I was working in the country with women and girls and discovered that despite the flood of bikes that swarmed the roads in cities and villages across the country, girls were not allowed to ride. I started challenging the gender barrier on my own two wheels, asking questions of the men and boys that often rode with me about their families, their community, women’s sports, and why bikes were off limits for girls.

One of the deepest taboos still present today in Afghanistan for girls is riding a bike. In a country repeatedly ranked as the worst place in the world to be a woman, the subjugation and oppression of women isn’t legalized, but it is a cultural norm. In the past decade, huge gains have been made in women’s rights and access to society. In the twenty visits I’ve made to Afghanistan, I have met female pilots, police officers, politicians, lawyers, and even the women’s boxing team, but I had never met a woman or girl who rode a bike.

Photograph by Deni Bechard
Photograph by Deni Bechard

Bicycles equal freedom and independent mobility, but straddling a bike seat is considered obscene. No matter where I rode, I never met a family that would allow their girl to ride a bike. Yet three years ago I met a group of young women riding bikes as part of a newly formed Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team in Kabul. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with several groups of girls learning to ride while taking back the streets, and their rights, on two wheels..

The young women of the Afghan National Cycling Team, and the young women around Afghanistan that are learning to ride bikes for the first time in their country’s history, did not grow up under a burqa. They matured in the post Taliban decade under a constitution that included a role for women in the government and a wave of international aid targeting women and girls education and job training. They have taken advantage of opportunities in education, art, sport, and politics.

Photograph by Deni Bechard
Photograph by Deni Bechard

I believe sport is a natural gateway to social change. As the national team races outside of Afghanistan and brings national pride to themselves, their families, and to Afghanistan, they are cracking open a door that can normalize bikes for girls, allowing them to ride bikes socially with friends and as transportation to school. Creating social justice and gender equality on two wheels.

Every day I worry about these young women. Not just on the bike, but off. As security in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, I worry about their safety regardless of whether or not they ride a bike. They are on the front line in a gender and cultural war and yet, if they are willing to ride, to go to school, and to believe in a brighter future, I will continue to support them. On and off the bike.

It’s time for all of us to support these young women that are changing the future of their country one pedal stroke at a time. They believe that change happens when they use their voice and fight for their equality. We need to believe that these women, and women like them around the world, are the future and that their fearlessness needs our support.

Two and a half years ago, filmmaker Sarah Menzies and I discussed making a film about these women. Four months later, our all female film crew landed in Kabul and we are now preparing for one final production trip to wrap up this feature length documentary. Afghanistan is a difficult place to work. It’s even more difficult to make a film, but its time we change the narrative of war, terrorism, and poverty that limits the possibility for change, and start to show the incredible stories of hope that exist against that backdrop.

Afghan Cycles is a never before seen look at the revolution of cycling for women in Afghanistan. The film will not only tell the story of these women, but will be used as a tool in the overall movement to empower and change women’s lives.

You can be part of this movement, and be part of this film. We have launched a Kickstarter to get this film and this story over the finish line. This is your opportunity to be part of a revolution, to help tell a story that can affect real social change and can inspire women around the world to use their voice, defy barriers, and pedal their own revolution.