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Afghan Women Use Bikes to Defy the Patriarchy

Afghan Women Use Bikes to Defy the Patriarchy 2020-10-12Leave a comment

electrical bike Afghan Ladies Use Bikes to Defy the Patriarchy

All over the world, the coronavirus pandemic has given the bicycle new popularity as each a fascinating type of transportation and a remedy for boredom. In Afghanistan, that shift is kindling a quiet revolution, opening a small window for long-overdue social change: For the primary time, a big mixed-gender group is driving the streets of Kabul, carrying hopes for lasting influence.

Twice per week at 5 a.m., Hamidullah (Hamid) Rafi, 27, leaves his house in an overcrowded neighborhood in western Kabul on his bicycle, a Chinese language knockoff paying homage to the early coil shock mountain bike prototypes. He bought it brand-new from a motorbike store throughout the pandemic. Accompanying him, on bikes additionally not too long ago acquired from the identical store, are his spouse, Sahiba Alizada, 24, and his youthful brother, Azizullah, 21. Sahiba, her hair tightly wrapped in a cashmere scarf, wears black denims underneath a belted shirt that extends previous her knees; Azizullah carries meals and first support provides in a backpack.

cycling in kabul

With their mixed-gender driving group, Hamidullah Rafi and his spouse, Sahiba, set a profound instance in a standard society that sees a lady’s place solely at house. Habiba Halima (far proper) first discovered in regards to the biking group on Fb.

Zabihullah Habibi

Their first cease, the place extra riders be part of, is a close-by four-story purchasing middle of a sort sometimes present in Kabul, the place you should purchase something from kitchenware to clothes. Whereas the remainder of the town sleeps, they pedal in pairs on empty roads usually full of automobiles and pushcarts. By the point they arrive at Qargha Lake, a weekend getaway about 15 kilometers west of the town, the group includes about 60 riders, greater than half of whom are ladies. Single-speed cruisers dominate the lineup; most are borrowed from a cousin or an uncle. Nobody is sporting a helmet, and regardless of the early morning darkness, the bicycles aren’t geared up with security lights. In Qargha, some members dip their toes into the lake and splash water on each other, whereas others unfold a picnic sofra (tablecloth), layering it with naan, cream, and dates. Is that this an air of normalcy in a spot the place that phrase has escaped each reminiscence and creativeness? Maybe.

Earlier than the pandemic, nearly no ladies may very well be seen on bikes in Kabul.

The group coalesced throughout Kabul’s coronavirus lockdown when, like many metropolitan areas world wide, the town was experiencing exceptionally good air high quality from the shortage of motor site visitors. In the future in Might, Hamid observed one thing peculiar, unprecedented even: For the primary time, he might see the distant peaks of the Shir Darwaza Mountains within the northeast. They’d been obscured underneath what had turn out to be a everlasting characteristic of Kabul’s local weather: a thick mixture of smog and dirt. The town’s inhabitants has surged previous 4 million lately, and Kabul’s air is now among the many worst on the earth. The issue is so dire that residents on social media have declared it a “larger menace than terrorism.”

Motivated by the sight of a clear Kabul, Hamid determined he not needed to play a task in polluting it. So he purchased a motorbike.


This wasn’t Hamid’s first bike. Fourteen years in the past he migrated to Kabul from a distant village in central Afghanistan, the place he labored on his household farm and walked an hour and half every method to faculty. In Kabul he continued to stroll all over the place, usually displaying up late to high school after serving to his father of their small brickmaking manufacturing facility. In the future, his father stunned him with a single-speed bicycle geared up with a dynamo-powered headlight. Hamid added his personal equipment: a loud “police siren” bell, and a bouquet of plastic roses on the handlebar to “impress ladies.”

cycling in kabul

Earlier than each journey, Hamid reminds everybody about security guidelines and gives deescalation ideas in case they encounter harassment.

Zabihullah Habibi

Hamid’s bicycle turned a catalyst for brand new private {and professional} alternatives. Motivated to search out his personal place in a quickly rising Kabul, he used the time saved from commuting to enroll in English courses the place he turned fluent; he now earns a residing as a translator. However when he began his undergraduate research at Kabul College, the place enterprise apparel is the norm, the bike needed to go. “Faux satisfaction,” he says. “Individuals in Kabul view driving as lowly if you end up in a swimsuit and tie.”

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Although Hamid’s return to biking started in good conscience for the setting, it quickly morphed into one thing surprising. After he posted a brief Fb clip of that first journey with Sahiba and Azizullah, requests to affix started coming in, principally from ladies who have been inspired by Hamid’s spouse. “I noticed a buddy’s Fb story that she had gone out to cycle,” says 18-year-old pupil Habiba Halimi, who confirmed up for her first journey on her 10-year-old sister’s bike.

Hamid’s casual jaunt to the lake had sparked a departure from custom in Kabul’s male-dominated society, the place underneath the Taliban regime, ladies have been prohibited from attending faculty and ladies may very well be punished for leaving the home alone. Within the final twenty years underneath the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—backed by america and the worldwide neighborhood—ladies have gained extra freedom and equality. Thousands and thousands of ladies have gone to high school, and a big variety of them are actually becoming a member of the workforce in each the non-public and public sectors, with some holding key management roles within the authorities.

Some traditionalists nonetheless take into account ladies’s independence as an ethical corruption of the society.

cycling in kabul

For the ladies in Hamid’s group, the bike has introduced a way of freedom in a male-dominated society.

Zabihullah Habibi

However regardless of a structure that grants equals rights for girls, Afghanistan’s conservative society has been gradual to embrace change. Some traditionalists nonetheless take into account ladies’s independence as an ethical corruption of the society. Ladies driving bicycles are typically seen as committing one of many gravest violations of a tradition that sees their place solely inside the home—a judgment that may considerably have an effect on a younger girl’s future prospects, from marriage to work. Maybe it’s the bicycle’s liberating nature that makes it so contested: It’s without delay a catalyst for change and a menace to society’s long-held patriarchal traditions.

Hamid and I attended the identical highschool in Kabul within the late 2000s. Throughout morning assemblies, he’d usually kick off the day by reciting the Quran by way of a bullhorn in a lyrical tenor voice in entrance of 500 college students lined up on a dusty soccer subject. His nickname was Qari, referring to somebody who is aware of the Quran by coronary heart. He requested me not too long ago, “Inform me, what a part of ladies driving a bicycle is un-Islamic? Should you see a lady on a motorbike who’s dressed inside our non secular and cultural boundaries, what sin is she committing?”


Jada-e Shahid Mazari is an extended, straight stretch of highway that connects a good portion of western Kabul to the remainder of the town. Named after a pacesetter of the mujahideen (non secular holy warriors who resisted the Nineteen Eighties Soviet occupation) who was killed by the Taliban in 2000, it’s simply vast sufficient for 2 automobiles. It has no lanes or shoulder. Mornings are quiet, however by afternoon it is not uncommon for 4 lanes of site visitors to kind, squeezing cyclists within the cracks between the slow-moving automobiles. That is the principle highway Hamid’s group follows out of the town and again.

Habiba’s first journey with the group was in early June. She and her older brother, Hashim, 19, fastidiously snuck out the door so their mom wouldn’t see; Habiba was on her little sister’s bike, her brother on a neighbor’s cruiser.

They waited on the group’s predetermined assembly spot, which Hamid had introduced in a secret Fb group chat. Extra ladies confirmed up, driving the slim and unpaved streets, accompanied for security by male members of the group who had been assigned by Hamid a day earlier than the journey.

cycling in kabul

The group often rides early within the morning as a result of there may be much less site visitors on Kabul’s usually congested roads.

Zabihullah Habibi

The group set out on Jada-e Shahid Mazari. As they pedaled the empty roads, extra riders joined from areas alongside the route: At a roundabout with a big marble statue of Mazari. On a flyover bridge, Kabul’s first, erected to unlock site visitors jams primarily brought on by pushcarts. At a spot the place the Kabul-Kandahar freeway additionally stretches westward, every passing mile growing the danger of roadside abductions and killings till it turns into fully Taliban territory. At Kabul Polytechnic College, its Soviet-era block buildings intact after nearly half a century of conflicts.

From Polytechnic they took a left activate Qargha Street, which extends west with a gradual incline towards the Paghman Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks levitate above Kabul’s thick smog. The ultimate steep kilometer earlier than Qargha Lake proved difficult for Habiba on her single-speed youngsters’ bike however she soldiered on, motivated by the large physique of blue water inside attain.

cycling in kabul

The group nearly all the time stops for breakfast and leisurely hangout alongside the.

Zabihullah Habibi

On the way in which down, her scarf flapped in opposition to the wind, and because the screechy bike picked up pace, she smiled. “I had by no means felt freer,” she stated later. However with extra folks and automobiles on the streets, the journey again from Qargha was not as peaceable. There have been demeaning feedback from drivers, dangers of encountering bandits eager on stealing the bikes, and males lurking who taunted the ladies.

Up to now, the group’s massive measurement has saved hurt at bay, however the risks are actual. Lately, Habiba noticed on Fb {that a} non-public guard at a college had pushed a feminine bike owner to the bottom on Qargha Street. Her head hit the sidewalk and later needed to be repaired with 5 stitches. “After we discover folks suspicious of inflicting bother, we encompass them in a large circle and make loud noises,” Hamid says. “Normally they depart.”

The tempo of public opinion lags behind the brisk growth of the biking group. Earlier than the pandemic, except just a few members of the national cycling team, nearly no ladies may very well be seen on bikes in Kabul. Hamid’s group is without doubt one of the first to prepare rides there, drawing dozens of ladies out on bikes, which makes the group’s presence each an unparalleled alternative and a problem. On one hand, the ice is already damaged. On the opposite, individuals who take concern with ladies on bikes are decided to place a cease to it. Lately, a mullah denounced the progress in a sermon and on Fb, saying that “driving bicycles, some ladies have turned western Kabul into the West. We are going to make it their jail.” In a society that continues to high the checklist of worst locations to be a lady by organizations like Amnesty Worldwide, that type of assertion from a non secular chief is a legit menace.

“I’m genuinely afraid of somebody opening hearth on us whereas we’re biking,” says Farishta Afzaly, 25, who’s now pursuing her grasp’s diploma in academic insurance policies for world growth. And that concern has roots in latest tragic historical past. In 2018, an Islamic State suicide bomber detonated himself inside a crowded mixed-gender classroom, killing more than 40 students, together with Hamid’s 17-year-old sister, Rahila. That day, Hamid looked for Rahila’s physique amongst piles of corpses in a number of hospitals, ultimately recognizing her from her wristwatch. When family members put collectively a fund to cowl funeral bills, Hamid introduced that the cash can be used as a substitute to construct a library in Rahila’s identify. In her diary, Rahila had written: “This society will overcome its present disaster by options drawn from the data and schooling of its youth.” Later in an interview, Hamid stated: “My sister died attempting to understand her dream to make our society a greater place. This library will preserve that dream alive.” At this time, the Rahila Foundation is a thriving academic group that additionally gives scholarships {and professional} growth workshops to a whole lot of formidable ladies and boys.

To alter this tradition, we should present the picture of a lady on a motorbike to as many individuals as attainable.

If sitting in a classroom is a sin for ladies, then sitting on a motorbike is sinning at one other stage, bringing the thought of ladies’s independence into the open—and welcoming a better threat of retaliation. However for Hamid and his crew, if the second for change is just not now, then when is it? “We have now already accomplished what was unimaginable simply over three months in the past. Within the minds of many, we’ve damaged the parable that ladies can’t journey,” says Habiba. “We are able to solely develop what we’ve began.”

cycling in kabul

Zabihullah Habibi

cycling in kabul

For security, some ladies are accompanied by one or two male group members till they’re united with the group.

Zabihullah Habibi

The bike has proved essential for Habiba, who’s at the moment attempting to earn a college scholarship overseas. To arrange, she should go to an academic middle on the opposite finish of Kabul the place she will entry textbooks for English and different topics. “My household can’t afford the transportation prices to ship me there each day,” she says. On a motorbike it prices nothing.

Farishta, who discovered to journey whereas learning overseas in Bangladesh and South Korea, believes the bicycle may be helpful for different social causes as nicely. In Bangladesh, she participated in a 220-kilometer bike rally to advertise a cleaner setting. She hopes Hamid’s Kabul group can manage related packages regionally.

For now, Hamid thinks they need to give attention to two objectives: getting extra ladies to journey and elevating consciousness about biking etiquette and security. “Each journey is a chance for reaching these objectives,” he says. Buying helmets, that are onerous to search out in Kabul, can be a precedence. The group’s essential concern is to deliver gradual change with out compromising security. Which means imposing limits on including new members whereas pushing boundaries in different areas, like driving in busy hours and areas.

“To alter this tradition, we should present the picture of a lady on a motorbike to as many individuals as attainable,” Farishta says. “It’s like driving: Just a few years in the past, [it was frowned upon for] ladies, however now it’s regular. We are able to do the identical with biking.”

Editor’s Word: Farid Noori is an elite mountain bike racer and the founding father of the nonprofit Mountain Bike Afghanistan. The group not too long ago despatched 25 helmets (donated by Specialised Bicycles) to Hamid’s group.

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