The last 10 days have been a matter of life and death for the groundbreaking women cyclists who defied gender taboos in Afghanistan, and who are now in danger of targeted violence by the Taliban. There is an international effort underway to bring the riders to safety but time is running out.
There are thousands desperate to flee the country before the US troops withdrawal deadline of August 31. The Taliban has taken control of all major airports with the exception of the airport in Kabul, but traveling to this hub can be dangerous, even for those who have been placed on evacuation lists and have been cleared to leave.
The nation's only evacuation hub has grown dangerous and frantic, with the Taliban attempting to prevent the exodus by blocking its citizens from accessing the road to the airport.
There is a race to expedite the process for Afghan sportswomen and the men who have assisted in their progress during recent years. This includes those involved in cycling, who are on evacuation lists and prepared for travel because they have become targets for violence.
Trying to leave the country under such turmoil has been a daunting and desperate effort, and although progress is being made to evacuate, it can’t happen fast enough.
"Myself and every human rights activist who I knew that worked in Afghanistan was devastated and appalled by what is happening there now. We knew what was coming if we abandoned the peace process and set a timeline for the quick evacuation," said Shannon Galpin, a human rights activist who has supported women and girls riding bikes in Afghanistan since 2013.
"We have seen, since the spring, major conversation in the press and on social media, sounding the alarm that women would be left behind, that women’s rights would disappear or be at risk. Women’s lives are at risk."
The Taliban enforced extreme restrictions on women's freedoms when they last held majority control of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Now, 20 years later, they have taken back control, and any progress that had been made toward gender equality and women's freedoms – such as rights to employment, education, and sports, including cycling – have been halted.
In an emergency meeting of the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet warned of executions, targeted attacks, and restrictions on Afghan women, saying that she has received "credible reports" of summary executions of civilians by the Taliban.
"A fundamental red line will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls," Bachelet stated, while also calling for "respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression and employment" in a full statement that was published across international media outlets.
A crucial moment for women's cycling
Afghan women Masomah Ali Zada and her sister Zahra were subjects in a 2016 documentary on French TV channel Arte called Les Petites Reines de Kaboul (The Little Queens of Kabul). They were featured as part of Afghanistan's first national women's cycling team and the film documented, and brought attention to, the challenges of cycling as a female in Afghanistan.
Masomah said that she was threatened, insulted and had stones thrown at her while she was cycling in her country, all done to try to stop her from riding a bike. The sisters and their family have since settled as refugees in France under a humanitarian visa, and submitted an asylum application that was accepted in 2017.
Galpin remembers the sisters and their time with the Afghanistan Cycling Federation while on the women’s team. There were glimpses of progress and, while it was still dangerous for women to ride bikes, social change slowly began to happen and women and girls were participating in cycling clubs and events over the last two years.
"When I first started mountain biking in Afghanistan, it was the best way to have an authentic experience and it was an icebreaker. The bike became a tool for conversation. I was met with curiosity but never with animosity because I’m a foreign woman," Galpin said of her first mountain bike journey through Afghanistan in 2008.
"When I rode with Afghan women, there was tension because they were risking their lives, and it was incredibly taboo at the time, even by 2013. But there was safety in strength in numbers and there was joy, laughter and camaraderie – the same emotions that we all feel when we get to ride our bikes.
"It’s been a rollercoaster to go from a handful of women ... In the midst of COVID-19 last year, the women’s riding movement, a sort of right-to-ride revolution, expanded to seven provinces with five women’s races as well as BMX competitions. It was the natural progression of how cycling for women was growing. It was amazing that when so many things shut down, the sport of cycling in Afghanistan flourished."
In July, the sport and the nation experienced a ground-breaking moment, with the first female cyclist, Masomah Ali Zada, selected to participate at the Tokyo Olympic Games with the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. It was one of the milestone steps toward normalising Afghan women riding bicycles.
"Whether or not they are cyclists, women are a potential target for violence because of their gender in Afghanistan. Then you add in the generalised violence, regardless of gender, that Afghan’s face when they are in public spaces, such as taking part in an outdoor sport that happens on the open roads where there is the potential for roadside bombs or traffic that isn’t safe," Galpin said.
"Afghan women riding bikes and cycling for the first time in their history, they were often targeted. The bigger part of the sport, and of our end goal, was that if we could use the sport of cycling to normalise women on bikes in public spaces, then that is social change."
Change of this magnitude often takes generations and Galpin noted that progress had only just begun over the last 10 years. She believes Afghanistan was at a crucial moment for women's rights in employment, education and sport, and that those rights are now under serious threat.
"This year, there was the first Afghan ever to compete at the Olympic Games in cycling, and it was a woman. We are only half way through the generational shift, and it has now stopped. There will be a whole starting over point, if we get the chance to start over again," Galpin said.
Galpin: Women can be killed
Sports bodies all over the world are calling on governments for the emergency evacuations of female athletes who fear for their lives following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Cyclingnews understands that UCI President David Lappartient is working with the authorities to find the best solution to protect upwards of 60 athletes and their families who are in danger in Afghanistan.
In addition, the Italian Cycling Federation (FCI) has also been involved along with the Department of Sport, Undersecretary of Sport Valentina Vezzali, and journalist Francesca Monzone, opening channels with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find solutions to help evacuate athletes and their families.
"Right now, we need to evacuate all Afghans that want to evacuate. I have contact with cyclists who are hiding, who are in domestic abuse situations, who have family and children who can’t escape. There are Taliban going door-to-door," said Galpin, who is working on adding female cyclists and their families to the evacuation lists at the US Department of State.
"Women are burning their cycling kit and diplomas, erasing social media histories, and erasing themselves to avoid retribution. The worst that can happen is that these women can be killed.
"I copy the state department, which handles the evacuation lists. It’s a matter of reaching out, finding the Afghans, athletes and human rights defenders, and getting their information, and getting them onto evacuation lists, so that they can be evacuated if we can get them safely to the airport."
Cyclingnews understands the evacuation lists and specific evacuation destinations are being kept highly confidential for the safety of the athletes trying to leave Afghanistan.
Some athletes live in provinces that are hundreds of kilometres away from an evacuation hub and travel needs to be organised by roads that are dangerous. In addition, nationals have been halted from leaving Afghanistan as the Taliban close gates into airports.
"It is an issue, getting safely to an airport. We have planes departing that aren’t full, and people left outside the gates who haven’t been able to get tickets, or get through the gates of the airport to get to the planes."
Fundraiser: Support evacuation and resettlement of Afghan cyclists
There are costs associated with the evacuation and resettlement of people who are fleeing Afghanistan and Galpin has set up a fundraiser on Fundly (opens in new tab) to help support the women who are seeking to relocate.
"The women that founded and grew the 'right to ride' cycling movement in Afghanistan are among the most prominent athletes in Afghanistan over the past decade," Galpin wrote on the fundraiser page.
"They were nominated as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. They have been celebrated and feted by the international community but they have not been supported."
As of Monday, more than 450 donors have helped raise nearly $40,000 USD of the targeted $100,000 USD, with 54 days remaining.
"Here's how we support the women we have seen in documentaries, in newspapers and magazines, and in museums. We get them out. These women are on evacuation lists but we need to fund their evacuation and their repatriation costs, mental health counselling, and of course, once they have a community, get them bikes. They never wanted this. We have a moral obligation to support them and help them rebuild their lives."
For more information or to make a donation, visit the Fundly fundraiser page Support evacuation and resettlement of Afghan cyclists.
Freedom of mobility
The resettling of refugees who have fled their home countries can be a long, arduous and emotional process. There are often specialised programmes that provide critical resources that help refugees become integrated in their new and foreign locations. Relocating often means a loss of culture, language and community.
Bicycle donations and integration into a cycling community can not only help new arrivals with necessary transportation and freedom of mobility, but it can also help welcome them into a new environment and community, and importantly to avoid isolation.
"When we look at the bike community as a whole, one thing that is important that ties the community together, beyond the fact that they are athletes, is that every refugee has freedom of mobility," Galpin said.
Galpin highlighted a grassroots community project based in Scotland – Bikes for Refugees – that specialises in refurbishing and distributing donated bikes free to asylum seekers and refugees since April 2017. Last year, the community project reached a milestone of supporting its 1,000th person with a bicycle to help with travel and to build social networks.
"When refugees have bikes – not just donations, but bikes along within the structure of the cycling community – you’re giving refugees who are arriving with nothing, freedom of mobility and access to community.
"All of the refugees that I know who have bikes are integrated into a broader cycling community in a way that does not happen as often as we’d like to see. When the cycling community is at its best is when it’s able to use a bike, not through sport, but to welcome people.
"We need to make sure that we care about these women, not just because they are cyclists, but because they are women. We need to make sure all of these women have access to bikes and to the community so that they can build a new home."
To learn more about how you can help click on the link of resources that is being updated daily: Resources to Help Afghan Refugees
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.