Women cycling in Afghanistan (Image credit: Getty Images)
The last 10 days have been a matter of life and death for the groundbreaking women cyclists who defied gender taboos in Afghanistan, and who are now in danger of targeted violence by the Taliban. There is an international effort underway to bring the riders to safety but time is running out.
There are thousands desperate to flee the country before the US troops withdrawal deadline of August 31. The Taliban has taken control of all major airports with the exception of the airport in Kabul, but traveling to this hub can be dangerous, even for those who have been placed on evacuation lists and have been cleared to leave.
The nation's only evacuation hub has grown dangerous and frantic, with the Taliban attempting to prevent the exodus by blocking its citizens from accessing the road to the airport.
There is a race to expedite the process for Afghan sportswomen and the men who have assisted in their progress during recent years. This includes those involved in cycling, who are on evacuation lists and prepared for travel because they have become targets for violence.
Trying to leave the country under such turmoil has been a daunting and desperate effort, and although progress is being made to evacuate, it can’t happen fast enough. "Myself and every human rights activist who I knew that worked in Afghanistan was devastated and appalled by what is happening there now. We knew what was coming if we abandoned the peace process and set a timeline for the quick evacuation," said Shannon Galpin, a human rights activist who has supported women and girls riding bikes in Afghanistan since 2013.
"We have seen, since the spring, major conversation in the press and on social media, sounding the alarm that women would be left behind, that women’s rights would disappear or be at risk. Women’s lives are at risk."
The Taliban enforced extreme restrictions on women's freedoms when they last held majority control of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Now, 20 years later, they have taken back control, and any progress that had been made toward gender equality and women's freedoms – such as rights to employment, education, and sports, including cycling – have been halted.
In an emergency meeting of the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet warned of executions, targeted attacks, and restrictions on Afghan women, saying that she has received "credible reports" of summary executions of civilians by the Taliban.
"A fundamental red line will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls," Bachelet stated, while also calling for "respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression and employment" in a full statement that was published across international media outlets.
A crucial moment for women's cycling
Afghan women Masomah Ali Zada and her sister Zahra were subjects in a 2016 documentary on French TV channel Arte called Les Petites Reines de Kaboul (The Little Queens of Kabul). They were featured as part of Afghanistan's first national women's cycling team and the film documented, and brought attention to, the challenges of cycling as a female in Afghanistan.
Masomah said that she was threatened, insulted and had stones thrown at her while she was cycling in her country, all done to try to stop her from riding a bike. The sisters and their family have since settled as refugees in France under a humanitarian visa, and submitted an asylum application that was accepted in 2017.
Galpin remembers the sisters and their time with the Afghanistan Cycling Federation while on the women’s team. There were glimpses of progress and, while it was still dangerous for women to ride bikes, social change slowly began to happen and women and girls were participating in cycling clubs and events over the last two years.
"When I first started mountain biking in Afghanistan, it was the best way to have an authentic experience and it was an icebreaker. The bike became a tool for conversation. I was met with curiosity but never with animosity because I’m a foreign woman," Galpin said of her first mountain bike journey through Afghanistan in 2008.
"When I rode with Afghan women, there was tension because they were risking their lives, and it was incredibly taboo at the time, even by 2013. But there was safety in strength in numbers and there was joy, laughter and camaraderie – the same emotions that we all feel when we get to ride our bikes.
"It’s been a rollercoaster to go from a handful of women ... In the midst of COVID-19 last year, the women’s riding movement, a sort of right-to-ride revolution, expanded to seven provinces with five women’s races as well as BMX competitions. It was the natural progression of how cycling for women was growing. It was amazing that when so many things shut down, the sport of cycling in Afghanistan flourished."
In July, the sport and the nation experienced a ground-breaking moment, with the first female cyclist, Masomah Ali Zada, selected to participate at the Tokyo Olympic Games with the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. It was one of the milestone steps toward normalising Afghan women riding bicycles.
"Whether or not they are cyclists, women are a potential target for violence because of their gender in Afghanistan. Then you add in the generalised violence, regardless of gender, that Afghan’s face when they are in public spaces, such as taking part in an outdoor sport that happens on the open roads where there is the potential for roadside bombs or traffic that isn’t safe," Galpin said.
"Afghan women riding bikes and cycling for the first time in their history, they were often targeted. The bigger part of the sport, and of our end goal, was that if we could use the sport of cycling to normalise women on bikes in public spaces, then that is social change."
Change of this magnitude often takes generations and Galpin noted that progress had only just begun over the last 10 years. She believes Afghanistan was at a crucial moment for women's rights in employment, education and sport, and that those rights are now under serious threat.
"This year, there was the first Afghan ever to compete at the Olympic Games in cycling, and it was a woman. We are only half way through the generational shift, and it has now stopped. There will be a whole starting over point, if we get the chance to start over again," Galpin said.
Galpin: Women can be killed
Sports bodies all over the world are calling on governments for the emergency evacuations of female athletes who fear for their lives following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Cyclingnews understands that UCI President David Lappartient is working with the authorities to find the best solution to protect upwards of 60 athletes and their families who are in danger in Afghanistan.
In addition, the Italian Cycling Federation (FCI) has also been involved along with the Department of Sport, Undersecretary of Sport Valentina Vezzali, and journalist Francesca Monzone, opening channels with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find solutions to help evacuate athletes and their families.
"Right now, we need to evacuate all Afghans that want to evacuate. I have contact with cyclists who are hiding, who are in domestic abuse situations, who have family and children who can’t escape. There are Taliban going door-to-door," said Galpin, who is working on adding female cyclists and their families to the evacuation lists at the US Department of State.
"Women are burning their cycling kit and diplomas, erasing social media histories, and erasing themselves to avoid retribution. The worst that can happen is that these women can be killed.
"I copy the state department, which handles the evacuation lists. It’s a matter of reaching out, finding the Afghans, athletes and human rights defenders, and getting their information, and getting them onto evacuation lists, so that they can be evacuated if we can get them safely to the airport."
Cyclingnews understands the evacuation lists and specific evacuation destinations are being kept highly confidential for the safety of the athletes trying to leave Afghanistan.