Afghan female athletes brave stigma, lead cycling drive in Kabul


Many in Afghanistan see cycling as a sport reserved for men, so for Rukhsar Habibzai and the dozens of other cyclists on the national women’s team, riding is about fighting the taboo and claiming equal space on the city streets.

“I always thought to myself, if the rights of men and women are equal, why don’t girls ride bicycles in Afghanistan?” asked the 24-year-old team captain.

“And that is why I decided to become a model for many Afghan girls to follow, to challenge the restrictions and start riding bicycles,” Habibzai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As Kabul’s city government announced it will soon create its first cycle lanes, Habibzai and her teammates are zipping around town to encourage more young women to get on their bikes.

Under the supervision of the Afghanistan Cycling Federation, close to 30 young women are registered for regular training sessions in Kabul. That’s up from only a couple in April, said Habibzai.

Fazli Ahmad Fazli, president of the Afghan Cycling Federation, said that cycling competitions would also be held in various Afghan provinces each month to encourage women to take up cycling.

Still, even Kabul, which is generally perceived by residents as the safest city in the country, male members of the cycling federation accompany the women during their training sessions to try to avert the bullying they often experience.

Some of the women cyclists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they have been verbally and physically assaulted by passersby, and have even been pelted with stones and water.

“It is quite a surprise for them (onlookers) to see girls riding bicycles in the street,” said Habibzai, who has been cycling for more than five years.

“Two weeks ago, a car hit one of our colleagues deliberately,” she added.

According to historical accounts, before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Kabul was seen as an emerging and progressive city, where it was common to see women and girls riding bicycles.

That changed during the Soviet occupation and after, when fighting among different mujahideen factions and then the Taliban’s brutal regime from 1996 to 2001 brought strict laws that stripped women of many of their rights, noted Kabul-based researcher and writer NezamUddin.

While women have made huge strides since the end of Taliban rule, with growing numbers earning an education and working in previously male bastions, they continue to face harassment and hurdles, human rights activists say.

“Despite the nearly 20 years of massive international engagement, funding and relative peace, Afghanistan in general – and Kabul, in particular – has not returned to the same level of social equality and acceptance,” Uddin added in a phone interview.

SajidaDiljam is among the younger female cyclists who have been inspired to change that.

“I have always had a personal interest (in cycling) and wanted it to become a common practice for girls,” said Diljam, who joined the group when it started last year.

Habibzai explained that every woman who joins must be at least 15 years old and get the consent of her parents. There is no fee, she added.

Like her mentor Habibzai, Diljam dreams of one day taking the team to cycling events on the world stage, such as the Tour de France and the Olympics.

In the meantime, the young women say they will continue to cycle together, going door-to-door to support each other as they pedal toward equality and personal freedom.

But for many of the young women cyclists, the ride proves too tough.

“We live in a country where riding bicycles is a matter of honour for girls. We make it clear to the new girls interested in joining us that there are many challenges … only those willing to face these challenges can come and ride bicycles,” said Habibzai. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)