Special report: The desperate choice facing Afghanistan's female cyclists

·7 min read
Nazifa on a training ride in Kabul in 2014 - Special report: The desperate choice facing Afghanistan's female cyclists - SHANNON GALPIN
Nazifa on a training ride in Kabul in 2014 - Special report: The desperate choice facing Afghanistan's female cyclists - SHANNON GALPIN

Stationed in a gated compound with limited access to the outside world, Fatima feels grateful. Her situation, she says, is not comparable to the thousands of other Afghan women who are feeling the full force of the Taliban’s repressive regime.

Tomorrow marks a month to the day since Fatima managed to flee Afghanistan with her family on one of the last charter flights that left a packed Kabul airport, escaping the chaos that rapidly engulfed the city after the militant group took power. “When we landed, I heard the news that there had been an explosion,” she says over a video call from the country in which she has sought refuge. “When I saw the photos, I realised we had paused there two days earlier for four hours, trying to get the soldiers’ attention.”

Fatima had been waiting by Abbey Gate, the exact spot where just 48 hours later the first of two twin suicide explosions would kill 182 people and strew bodies across a trench full of sewer water. Her brush with death marked the end of a traumatic process that began when she was put on an evacuation list alongside athletics, journalists and civil right activists. All were in immediate danger due to connections with sport, one of the many freedoms women have been denied under the Taliban interpretation of Sharia law.

One of the reasons Fatima was at risk was because of her status as a pioneer in helping to establish women’s cycling in Afghanistan. Seven years ago, when only 17, she set up the Girl Up Club, one of the country’s first women’s bike clubs which acted as a means of social empowerment. For a country where straddling a bike as a woman is considered to be immoral and provocative, it was a bold move. “Our club was focused on biking casually, as a means of transportation,” says Fatima. “None of us were really that athletic, although one of the girls ended up in the cycling team and now she’s in Germany. Another girl learned to ride a bike overnight so she could join us.”

Fatima has fond memories of her time with the club, but plays down her status as a trailblazer. Having attended college in the United States, she looks back on the progress made in the sport with happiness, but speaks with concern at her naivety about the repercussions of pushing for change. “Thank God nothing happened to those girls. I put a lot of them at risk,” says Fatima. “The fact that no one got into any real danger was lucky. I had no risk-management skills back then.”

Sediqa with her Bamiyam teammates (she is the girl on the far right of the close up photo) - Special report on the desperate choice facing Afghanistan's female cyclists
Sediqa with her Bamiyam teammates (she is the girl on the far right of the close up photo) - Special report on the desperate choice facing Afghanistan's female cyclists

She worries about the others from the Girl Up Club who remain in Kabul. “There are a few I lost contact with and many I never got the chance to meet in person. The club was active for about six months in 2014, but I would feel horrible if anything happened to our members, specifically because of their affiliation to the club,” she says, “it would haunt me forever.”

During the 12 hours that Fatima and her family waited to board a plane at Kabul airport, clutching a single backpack, she kept in close contact with Shannon Galpin, a human rights campaigner who has supported women’s cycling in Afghanistan for over a decade. Before the Taliban took power, women were cycling and competing for teams across nearly all of the country’s 34 provinces, while over 200 women were part of the country’s cycling federation. Since the collapse of the Afghan government, she has been working around the clock to evacuate hundreds of female athletes.

“Female cyclists are uniquely at risk because women were not riding bikes in Afghanistan until the national cycling team started in the post-Taliban era. There just hasn’t been an acceptance of women on bikes. It’s considered obscene,” says Galpin. “The bike goes hand-in-hand with women’s rights, because it is freedom of mobility. It is not only a sport, it is a social justice tool and vehicle for access which is threatening in communities that want to control women.”

Now, it is the first members of the national team that Galpin helped establish in 2012, and who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four years later, under threat. “These women are incredibly high profile,” Galpin says. “They were the generation who kicked open the door.”

One of the cyclists, Nazifa, was a nurse at a hospital in Kabul until being told to stay at home. For over a month, she has felt the full brunt of the Taliban’s oppressive regime, and fears they will discover her sporting passion. Some of her former team-mates have already burned their cycling certificates and destroyed medals, but Nazifa cannot bring herself to erase part of her identity that has given her so much joy.

“I’ve worked so hard to achieve what I have,” she says over a separate video call, the fear in her eyes discernible even over the grainy internet connection. “I feel too much pain at the thought of destroying them all. I can’t do it, so I’ve hidden them. I know it will create a problem if the Taliban come and search my house. I don’t know how they would treat me. I had big dreams and my future was very bright, but now the situation is very uncertain.”

 Sediqa riding in the mountains
Sediqa riding in the mountains

Sediqa, 21, is on the same call, acting as our translator. An Afghan national who is studying for an economics degree in India, she was the former captain of the Bamiyan women’s cycling team, based in the mountainous province in central Afghanistan and home to the Hazara community, a Persian-speaking ethnic minority that the Taliban has historically persecuted.

Upon hearing news of the Taliban’s takeover, Sediqa provided the names of 27 female cyclists from the Bamiyan region to Galpin who were in danger. Some have been evacuated via the Tajikistan border, but many others remain.

“I am very concerned about my team-mates and the girls in Afghanistan, they have a really high profile because there are videos and pictures of them all around social media,” says Sediqa. “I worry about my future, too, because I don’t know where to go when my visa expires. I can’t go back to Afghanistan. I am far from my family, I am thinking about them every moment, my two sisters and three brothers. I feel so helpless.” Fighting the tears, she switches off her phone camera to compose herself.

Galpin, who is being supported in her work by global law firm Hogan Lovells, still has more than 50 women cyclists needing to be evacuated and wants the sport’s governing body, the UCI, to step up its support. “These women have risked their lives to ride a bike or play their sport, but when an entire gender is being told by their country that girls can’t play sport, that’s indicative of the future that they have,” she says.

For Nazifa, who so loved the freedom of jumping on her bike and riding through the mountains, what future is there in being forced to stay sedentary? Even if she joins the next group of athletes fleeing the country, what about those who are left behind? “I would love to be evacuated,” she says, sadly, “but I can’t go alone without my family.”

Such is the desperate choice forced on sportswomen in Afghanistan. Forgo your loved ones, or bid goodbye to sport for ever. It is an ultimatum that, surely, cannot be ignored by the wider sporting world.