Freedom Riders of Afghanistan

Fighting for Women’s Rights


Afghan women line up before the ride. The women are riding to promote women’s rights across their country and the rest of the world.

Liz Liska, Editor in Chief

Based on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Index, the Middle East holds five of the top 10 worst countries for a woman to live and claims the top spot with Yemen, a country just south of Saudi Arabia. Most women in the Middle East are illiterate, withheld from education, and subject to brutal, legal abuses of their rights. Recently, a group of women have actively tried to change this thousand-year-old tradition and push for women in all countries to stand up for themselves. They started with a small action to make a big statement- riding bikes.

At first glance, this may seem like a simple action. In the United States, some girls start riding bikes from the time they can walk. For a Middle Eastern woman, however, riding is a revolution in itself. In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal for a woman to ride a bike. The reason? It is considered provocative to ride any way but side saddle. This extends not only to bikes but to motorcycles, scooters, and horses as well. In Afghanistan, a horse ridden by a female is considered to be “impure” and can never be permitted to race again.

Women who do choose to ride face mass criticism. In some societies, it is considered to be just one step below adultery. Women who choose to ride have rocks thrown at them. They can be ostracized by their families, neighbors and friends. Much like the Freedom Riders of the American Civil Rights Movement, the riders step right into the line of danger in order to make a statement for equality.

As one Egyptian rider recounted to Middle East Online, “verbal sexual harassments and cynical passers-by are big problems too.” The rider, Yasmine Mahmoud, also recounts the time she was jumped by a man on the street. Riding is not safe. They do it anyway.

The movement started in 2009 in Afghanistan, when Women’s Rights Activist and Colorado native, Shannon Galpin, began riding her bike around the country. She found that people were shocked to learned that she rode a bike. The women gawked in envy.

Galpin founded both the nonprofit Mountain2Mountain and the activist organization Combat Apathy to fight inequality. Her nonprofit organization provides bicycles and other equipment to women in Afghanistan, including both the men’s and women’s National teams.

Every ride, the women face the close and imminent danger of retaliation against them. They intentionally try to avoid attention being drawn to them by wearing loose clothing. They ride together to try to avoid harassment. When they ride, their coach rides along in a car next to them in an effort to protect them from harm. The head coach of the men’s and women’s national team, Abdul Sadiq, faces mass criticism for his actions, including multiple threats and physical assaults.

The coach is like a shield for us,” team member Malika Yousufi told Reuters. “If he wasn’t there, we couldn’t ride.”
Saquid also coaches the men’s team. He started the team for the women to help his daughter fight the stigma associated with riding. He wanted his daughter to share the same love he had found in cycling. Saquid himself rode professionally, and at one time was the only professional rider in Afghanistan. He is considered to be the “father of cycling” in the country.

The women’s team competes internationally and is now one of 11 teams in Afghanistan. Regionally, they compete in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where they have won in the past.

The team is still young and has a lot to improve upon, but is still making great gains and showing promise. Most riders are still novice, with only a handful of years’ riding experience. Most have only been riding for a few months. Still, they aim high. They hope to one day be able to compete in the Olympic games.

The team’s biggest struggle lies in the numbers. Most women on the team marry by 20 years of age and cannot compete anymore. Most women, after marriage, are required to be devoted to the family and the family alone, which leaves little time for sport. Fortunately, there are always new recruits with newfound confidence ready to be trained.
During the lifetime of most of these women, the Taliban had full control of Afghanistan from 1996-2001. During their reign, the women of the country were not allowed to leave their homes without a male to escort them. Most women on the team were young girls at this time.

“We want to prove ourselves to the women outside Afghanistan that Afghan women are able to do this,” cyclist Zahra Alizada told the IB Times. “We don’t want to be locked inside the home anymore. Whether it is in sports or studies we want prove ourselves. We don’t want to be imprisoned anymore as we were during the Taliban era.”

Not only is this social movement for sport, but it also holds a more practical side: basic transportation. In parts of the Middle East, bicycles are the main mode of transit. Without it, places such as work, hospitals, and schools are unreachable by foot. Girls who have the ability to go to school are forced to stay home, simply because they are physically incapable of getting to their local school by foot. Furthermore, teachers cannot get to rural schools, leaving women in entire villages uneducated, because the local men are not allowed to teach adolescent girls. With use of bicycles, rural areas would also have access to midwives who could travel to these isolated areas and help prevent infantile deaths. Most women aren’t seeking sport; Most women are fighting for their right to an overall better quality of life.

Riding bikes is just a small portion of what has to be done, but it is one giant step for women all over the world. The more people that support the riders, the faster the movement will spread.

Zaineb, an 18-year-old member of the team, told BBC News regarding her cycling, “It’s my ambition, and I hope that one day girls will be allowed to go cycling on the streets, without a coach, or anyone with them, and they will not have problems.”