Afghan women put aside their own safety and their country's culture to create a national cycling team

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Carol Hills: I want to tell you now about some young women who are defying cultural barriers in Afghanistan, on some mornings these women can be seen riding their bicycles through Kabul's dusty streets that's a daring thing to do in a country where women aren't supposed to ride bikes at all and these young women aren't just riding for fun their dream is to qualify for the Olympics as members of Afghanistan's women's national cycling team. As for Shannon Galpin comes in she's an American women's rights activist who's helping to train the team.

How did this get going a women's national cycling team I can't imagine that was sort of a natural for Afghanistan today?


Shannon Galpin: No it's definitely not but in a culture right now that is experiencing incredible opportunities for women including sports cycling is an incredible fit as it's so much more than a sport it's also a symbol of freedom.


Hills: I'd love to kind of hear about some of the women who are training for the national cycling team can you introduce us to a few of them?


Galpin: Sure one of the key women on the team is Mariam and Mariam is actually the first woman that I met back in 2012 and she's one of the stronger cyclist on the team she's also one of the oldest and she's probably 22 23 it's always kind of a variable in Afghanistan with age and she's also the only woman who's married on the team.


Hills: and is she from Kabul?


Galpin: She is from Kabul she spent a brief time like many Afghans did in Iran during the war and came back and is now living in Kabul with coach actually they are distant relatives.


Hills: and what do her parents think about it?


Galpin: Her family is very supportive of it and the coach is essentially extended family and more importantly now because she's married her husband is supportive of it.


Hills: so what happens when she gets out there on a bike do she and the other women train do they get harassed or are they kind of left alone how does it work for them to actually train?


Galpin: Well it's been very interesting for me because I started riding and mountain biking back in 2009 looking to see if women would ever be allowed to ride bikes and challenging that barrier and now I ride and train with the girls' team in Kabul and it's a completely different experience and gives me incredible insight as to the risks that these young women take when I ride with the Afghan team they are often harassed, insults are thrown at them rocks are thrown at them they've been sling-shotted, verbal is the most common way of harassing them versus physical but you know it's not unlikely that something quite serious could happen in the same way that young girls who are walking to school get harassed and even have acid thrown on them you know there has been acid attacks and just for walking to school so doing something as controversial as riding a bike in Afghanistan certainly comes with great risk.


Hills: Do they sort of take steps to avoid the harassers and the people who were assaulting them?


Galpin: Well that's one thing that I really work with coach on is how can we mitigate their risk you know what they are choosing to do is incredibly risky but how they look at it they're the ones who assume the risk they're the ones that are you know live with the risk of just being a woman in Afghanistan every single day and they have to make those choices as to what they are willing to do for the opportunities that are there for them and so in this particular case it's trying to find as many different places to train as possible which is very difficult because you need paved smooth roads that means we're often training on Afghan highways which is incredibly dangerous and whether you're a male or a female and there's only one or two really strong routes within Kabul but they're much more visible then and they are spectacle when they ride down the street people look and stare and notice.


Hills: I thought I read that they actually get up extremely early in the morning to practice to try to avoid some of this is that true?


Galpin: Yeah when we ride at Kabul often we're meeting at five in the morning and when we ride on Afghan highways sometimes it's not quite as early because they're further out of town but one of the big projects that I'm doing with the team is looking at what are the simpler ways that we could also help reduce the risk and one of those is a minibus you know getting a minibus that we could basically pick up all the girls all the bikes and go to more different varied places each time they train you know mix it up so that there're less predictable as to where they're going to be.


Hills: I mean how often are they out there how rigorous is the training who is out there with them?


Galpin: So they're always training with coach Sadeek and sometimes with members of the men's team but it's incredibly varied there's no real predictable training schedule for them one because of security which has been quite bad this year two because of access can coach actually get to them and pick them all up do they have school it's a very difficult country obviously to be trying to build a very public team and it's not like the football or cricket teams or even the boxing team which is quite controversial but it's done in a gymnasium.


Hills: are the men cyclists supportive the men’s' cycling team are they supportive of the women or is there kind of a little you know okay you can be with us but we really think this is wrong?


Galpin: it's very interesting the men’s' team are supportive of the women and kind of see them as sisters and we've really tried to nurture that I think where there has been a little bit of conflict has been in where the men see that they as boys have grown up on bikes they have great handling skills they can ride in cycling spandex and you know charge the hills long distances better endurance and feel like they're actually you know they're racers they're a competitive team whereas they see the girls and you know they're in flat pedals, they're just learning how to ride as a competitive sport and they sometimes I think are a little bit resentful of the fact that they're also called a team but when we really come down to explaining the cultural differences you know that you got to grow up on a bike this is new for them and we're really trying to support them to grow the sport overall but which will also help the men’s' team many of the members then will go out and ride with the girls.


Hills: Do the girls wear spandex?


Galpin: Underneath a layer of tracksuit bottoms and long sleeve shirts yes.


Hills: So they differ to local custom to some degree in terms of covering up part of themselves?


Galpin: Definitely they have to be really creative as to how they dress when they're riding a bike because I myself even will ride in a long skirt over my pants just to be as culturally acceptable as I can off the bike they are kind of pushing those boundaries in that they're wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt under a cycling jersey, there's no skin showing but it's still quite risky by Afghan standards.


Hills: With some preventing the girls and some of them obviously women from having better bicycles and you know the right kind of pedals I mean I'm visualizing that the guy have better bicycles and better uniforms and the girls don't is that a money issue?


Galpin: It was a money issue that has changed because I've brought over sixty racing bikes we've brought over 400 pounds of cycling gear and equipment and over 60 racing bikes so the equipment now they have the flat pedals is a matter of getting the girls comfortable into clip-less and getting them shoes and cleats which we don't have a sponsor for yet and funding is the biggest issue I've been working with them for two years and the biggest need at this point to grow the cycling federation and to grow the team is financial.


Hills: and are you aiming for the 2016 Olympics?


Galpin: No we're looking at the 2020 we would like to get the team to the 2016 as observers so they can see the level of cycling and they can understand really what the sport of cycling is about on a global scale but 2020 is more realistic these are girls who have really only been riding bikes for two or three years they've never ridden bikes before that so to grow the sport and to have them have a good chance at the 2020 will mean a lot of development a lot of training and a lot of that will have to happen outside of Afghanistan.


Hills: Shannon what motivates these women I mean there's a lot of risks this isn't an easy thing what motivates them to take part in this?


Galpin: I think what I see with these women is the same as what I see with the young women who risk their lives walking to school, who risk their lives to run in politics they have said many times change does not happen by playing it safe we're not going to change the access for women if we sit at home on a couch and they've all said that at different times in different ways and I think that represents the Afghan women that are coming through right now in this period of time they're incredibly courageous, incredibly resilient and they're not willing to sit by and let their rights be oppressed.


Hills: Shannon Galpin is working with the Afghan women's national cycling team and she has a memoir that's just coming out mountain to mountain a journey of adventure and activism for the women of Afghanistan I wish you luck and..


Galpin: I appreciate that.