Women's cycling team pushes past roadblocks in Afghanistan

Nothing will stop us, says a female Afghan cyclist


Reuters March 07, 2015
Females cycling in Afghanistan. PHOTO: BBC

KABUL: Malika Yousufi lined her bike up alongside her teammates on a lonely road outside the Afghan capital, getting ready for her weekly training ride away from the disapproving stares of Kabul.

Yousufi is part of Afghanistan's Women's National Cycling Team, a group that has been breaking new ground for women's sports in Afghanistan and pushing the boundaries of what is - and is not - acceptable for young women in the conservative Muslim country.


PHOTO: BBC

Under the Taliban in the 1990s, women in Afghanistan were excluded from public life, banned from going to school or stepping outside their home without a male family member.

Read: Afghan men don burqas, take to the streets for women's rights

Women's rights have made gains since the hardline militant group's ouster in 2001, but observers worry that progress is at risk as violence against women persists and women remain under-represented in politics.

"We are resolved to keep our commitments to women and we will protect and reinforce our achievements," President Ashraf Ghani's office said in a statement released after the president made a speech ahead of International Women's Day on March 8.


PHOTO: BBC

While Afghanistan's national men's cricket and football teams have enjoyed the spotlight, women's sports have made more halting progress, with athletes facing family pressure and patchy public support.

Read: Swat activist receives International Women of Courage Award

Last year, the women's cricket team was quietly dissolved amid Taliban threats and a shortage of players. The women's cycling team is pushing ahead, despite not having been paid for several months, a problem for many Afghan athletes.

To clock the distances needed for training, team members pile their bikes in cars and drive outside the capital, where their uniform of loose-fitting tops and long pants won't draw stares.

During the ride, the coach leads the pack in a car.

"The coach is like a shield for us," Yousufi said. "If he wasn't there, we couldn't ride."

Read: Turning the tide: ‘When women decide to work, gender becomes their strength’

Even so, drivers sometimes shout profanities at the riders, and their team captain grapples with a back injury from a crash after a man on a motorbike reached out to grab her.

Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi, the coach and president of the Afghan Cycling Federation, is not overly concerned.


PHOTO: BBC

"These are people who don't let their children go to school," Sadiqi said.

More than 40 women train with the group, and the core team has competed in several international competitions.

Read: Women empowerment: Call for implementation of pro-women laws

On a recent morning, team members leaned into the curves in the road, whizzing past a checkpoint where a group of soldiers watched them pass.

Yousufi said she was determined to become the first Afghan woman to compete in the Tour de France, a cycling race dominated by men since its first event in 1903.

"Nothing will stop us," she said.

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