Riding bikes and fighting taboos in Afghanistan
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Three months ago a handful of young Afghan boys launched a freestyle cycling club in Kabul. It went viral when teenage girls also joined the club – a big deal in a conservative society like Afghanistan.
The group are an unusual sight in the country: jumping over ramps, hopping over kerbs, sliding down handrails, stairs and ledges with their BMXs, and dressed in baseball caps and branded streetwear more reminiscent of hip-hop videos. But for three months now the group can be seen practising in Khatam Park in the west of the capital Kabul. Fifty teenagers, among them 15 girls, meet regularly to ride and practise tricks in the country’s first freestyle cycling club, which has been dubbed the Drop and Ride club.
“My parents are proud of me”
Zahra, 19, is one of the 15 girls who are original members of the “Drop and Ride” freestyle cycling club.
Three months ago, I decided to do something different and bring some energy and diversity to my life, and I founded the first freestyle cycling club in Afghanistan on Facebook.
I called the boys in the club to ask if I could join, and they said ‘No problem’, and that girls could participate, and that was fantastic.
I talked to my parents about it. Fortunately, they were okay with it, and so we bought a bicycle and I began to practise tricks. Since that day, I have been going to the club three times a week to practise for two hours.
I’m a lucky girl because my parents are open minded and are used to the strange things that I do! They don’t have an issue with my doing freestyle biking, even with boys, and now they are proud of me. They are only worried that I might get injured. This is not the case for lots of Afghan girls.
"Imagine how sinful we are in people’s minds!"
Girls cycling is a very big taboo in Afghanistan [Editor’s note: in many countries in the Middle East, conservative parts of society consider that seeing women on bicycles is contrary to the principles of Islam and constitutes indecent behaviour. Many women in Iran and Iraq have tried to change it in recent years.] Gender mixing is also seen as a sin and we are doing both things together, so imagine how sinful we are in people’s minds!
Sometimes we cycle outside of the club in the nearby park or in the street, and most people think we’re doing an inappropriate thing. People often insult us. Fortunately, we have not been attacked because we always cycle outside of the club with boys; so these angry people do not approach us.
I have to say that the parents who let their kids come to this club are part of very particular part of Afghan society. Not necessarily rich, but open-minded – or maybe we can call them intellectuals. At first for me it was just a sport, something fun, but now I’ve realised that we’re breaking a taboo and pushing the limits designated for women in our society.
Afghanistan is one of the hardest places in the world to be a woman. A survey by Human Rights Watch in 2010 reported that more than 85 per cent of Afghan women said that they had experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence, or been forced into marriage.
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Besides these societal problems, there are lots of other problems. For example, we cannot find good bikes so we have to buy normal bikes and then modify them. Even these bikes are really expensive – something around 15,000 Afghani [€215], and then we have to pay about €6 for the club each month. That is a lot of money for lots of people in Afghanistan. So some of our friends have no real BMX bikes.
In addition, we have no one who acts as a professional coach. Asghar Mehrzadeh, the founder of this club, watches the videos of professional bikers on YouTube, practises the tricks himself, and then tries to teach them to us.
The equipment of our club is not very sophisticated because we have no one to support us and we have made all we have with our own hands. Our club has a licence from the Afghanistan Biking Federation and we rented the site where we train, but no one supports us in any way.
“When girls wanted to join I had to think about the consequences”
Asghar Mehrzadeh, 18, is the founder of the Drop and Ride freestyle club.
I have been cycling freestyle by myself for many years because I love this sport. Three months ago I said to myself that there are surely other people out there in Kabul who must like this sport, so I started the club. I’m happy that it shows another image of Afghanistan besides war.
When girls contacted the club and said they were interested, for a second I thought about the consequences. But I said yes. Because I see the problems that girls have in Afghan society every day. So it could be a safe place to do something different in their life. On the other hand, because of the heavy taboos in Afghanistan, they cannot bike in the streets. I said we could begin to break this taboo gradually. With this club, I hope we see a day where girls are biking freely in the streets in Afghanistan.
Anyway, any progress has its price. I have been attacked in the streets by some hard-line conservatives. They say I am spreading the vice of Western culture. These attacks have been just punching and kicking, though, not a big deal.