Americans today may have a tough time imagining a woman riding a bicycle as taboo, but it was not too long ago that a female riding a bike was considered a sign of promiscuity and immorality.
“The women who rode bikes at the turn of the [20th] century wore buttoned-up petticoats to their chins and giant hoopskirts,” says Shannon Galpin, who is the founder of Mountain2Mountain, which aims to create education and opportunity for women and children in conflict zones. “When you consider the role of the bike, woman gained more freedom because they had transportation, and then came a change in fashion because of the invention of split skirts that led to bloomers and then to pants. Today, women wear pants because of the bike, in essence.”
Galpin is taking those lessons to Afghanistan, starting by creating a women’s cycling team. It’s the beginning of using the bicycle as a tool for breaking gender barriers.
Access to transportation makes commuting in rural areas, where violence has become epidemic, inherently less dangerous for women. In fact, Galpin says, she believes it is possible to “pedal a revolution,” a phrase she has coined. Not only because of the practical solutions, but also for the shift in perception that comes with the athleticism of bicycle culture.
“It’s fascinating that something so simple can be so controversial,” says Galpin, who, in 2009, became the first woman to ride a mountain bike across rural areas of Afghanistan. “The bike is becoming a visceral tool to fight gender violence. You can’t use it that way in Afghanistan yet, because you cannot safely get a woman on a bike in a rural area. As these women start to challenge this barrier and represent their country at sporting competitions, a national pride starts to build up around it. Hopefully, we can get them to the Olympics. Afghans will start to rally around them as Afghans, and suddenly they aren’t just viewed as women, but as athletes, and ambassadors.”
The women train on major trucking highways outside of Kabul. For their safety, they are usually with the men's team. | Photo by Claudia Lopez
It wasn’t long after making a film about Colorado-based Galpin, one of National Geographic’s picks for adventurer of 2013, that Sarah Menzies knew it was time to buckle up and turn her camera on the long-term work Galpin is doing to give voice to the women in Afghanistan. The in-progress film, Afghan Cycles, follows the lives of 12 young competitive cyclists, some of the first ever to sit on a bike and pedal. They may be a tenth of the fewer than 100 women in the history of the country to ride bikes.
But the 12 women on the team, ages 16-22, are not necessarily hopping on a bicycle to make a grand statement.
“Before we left, we had in the back of our minds, these women would be freedom fighters, and I assumed these women would be feminists through and through,” Menzies says. “That the bike would be a bike to change perception. And the biggest surprise is these girls are not conscious activists. As a filmmaker, I was excited to tell the story because of the purity of their intention of them just wanting to ride bikes.”
“They are doing it because it’s fun, it’s new,” Galpin says. “It opens up travel to interact with other young women, and they can show that Afghanistan is more than just a war zone. The fact that they are changing the perception of women is inherent, but not their motivation.”
Menzies was joined by Boulder-based photographer Claudia Lopez and California-based co-director Whitney Clapper.
Even without a spoken language in common, the cycling team and the film crew bonded by sharing photos and dancing together on the bus.
“As the bus started away from Kabul, the girls started to blast their music, looking to the others to dance, and soon everyone was laughing,” Clapper says. “Certain girls latched onto us — they wanted to know if we had boyfriends, and we showed them pictures.”
The dance party speaks to the trust and comfort the women felt with the crew, as well as their own male coach, but the fact that some girls had their head scarves off and were dancing in a joyous and silly fashion shows a kind of freedom that would not be widely tolerated. The film will not feature any dance clips due to confidentiality agreements.
Some girls did open up in interviews about glimpsing the bigness of what they are doing, Clapper says, and about wishing to wave their flag at sporting events to show how far they’ve come.
“Part of it is their age,” Clapper says. “They don’t know what life is like for women elsewhere. Whereas some of our interviewees, like parliament member and presidential candidate Fawzi Koofi and Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, they know the history of Afghanistan. They have lived it and can give us much more perspective of where women have come from, and where they are going, and how they are slowly, slowly making changes. The cyclists are like a drop in the bucket compared to a huge movement.”
But for an audience geographically distant and mostly unable to fathom a violent conflict zone, Galpin has contended, the stories of an individual or a small group can offer a vital entry into complex humanitarian issues. This framework is in stark contrast to the barrage of statistics and the casualty reports common to war reporting, she says, which can leave a reader feeling overwhelmed.
The women can't ride their bikes in Kabul proper because it's dangerous and too congested with traffic. | Photo by Claudia Lopez
Galpin is no stranger to the trauma and fear of sexual violence. In the aftermath of coming to terms with her own brutal rape, Galpin sought to create a safer world — one worthy of raising her own daughter in. That’s not to mention the countless women she meets who live in countries where rape occurs with even more frequency than in the United States, where, Galpin says in her latest TED Talk, a woman is raped every 20 minutes.
She is open about her personal story, and is currently writing a memoir because she believes that if women have a voice, they can provide solutions. Her recent TED Talk begins with a quotation from Ernest Hemingway: “The world tries to break everyone, and some people are stronger in the places that were broken.”
“Even though there is daily violence,” she says, “there are also huge strides against the odds, and everything I’ve been working on is changing that perception, whether it’s through sports or art — how do we highlight the beauty amongst the heartbreak? You have to break through the apathy and connect to women halfway around the world. … For anything to change — the ability to ride a bike in a country like Afghanistan, for instance — it does come down to a woman being willing to use her voice and say, ‘No more. I challenge authority and what the norm is, and realizing there is no basis for it.’”
The film crew was not without their own set of challenges as women visiting the country. Travelers, especially frequenters of countries classified as third-world, are familiar with being granted a flexible, tourist status that allows them to act out of the social norms. In Afghanistan, this was not the case for the American film crew, which had to be careful to adhere to the same expectations of behavior and dress as locals.
“We had our male translator or bus driver with us the whole time,” Clapper says. “A big part of that is security. If our escort said, ‘Stop filming and get back in the bus,’ we stopped filming and got back in the bus immediately. Certain places you have liberties being an American, but this isn’t a place you just go out for a run in the morning… You still adhere to the same rules.”
The sight of women on bikes outside of Kabul usually turns a few heads. | Photo by Claudia Lopez
Part of the strict adherence customs and heightened alertness to surroundings for the film crew is that the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban is active in Kabul.
“Their main targets are government, military and Afghan police, and the U.S. isn’t exactly on their happy list either,” Clapper says. “We never were directly targeted, but you are watched wherever you go. You play it safe and are aware of your surroundings and are open to what may need to happen in a blink of an eye.”
The crew experienced profound feelings of welcoming into homes and communities, despite the precariousness of moving about town to interview activists, locals, the cycling team’s families and political figures. This nuanced experience makes the story the film sets out to tell a difficult task. It’s one to be met with humility, says Menzies. Despite the positives, Afghanistan remains one of the cruelest and most incomprehensibly terrifying places on Earth for a woman in daily life, she says.
“Resiliency is the perfect word when you think about Afghanistan,” Galpin says. “Things get blown up, and in the afternoon the Afghans are sweeping up broken glass and rebuilding. It is incredibly beautiful and powerful to see — and I see it in the people, especially in the women — to see how they continue to have hope, rebuild and believe that somehow the next day, week, year, it’ll be better, even though they’ve been living like this for four decades, that they are willing to fight for change is powerful.”
“What these women are doing is inspiring and positive, but the truth remains — Afghanistan is a really rough place to be a woman,” says Menzies. “This team represents a cultural shift, without a doubt. But to understand the importance of what they are doing, we must give context by also telling the story of the harsh realities women still face throughout the country. Balancing the negative with the positive will be an important theme throughout the film. In finding that balance, audiences will understand the significance of these brave women who dare to ride.”
The film will be completed in the spring of 2015, and the crew will return to Afghanistan for its premiere.
The goal is to rally enough support for the team to be invited to the Olympics of 2020.
It would be a marker that would make history of the culminating efforts of women risking their lives for the hopes they carry within.