Since 2006, the organization Mountain2Mountain has been working with women and girls in Afghanistan to promote access to education, improved health care, and social opportunity. A large part of their programming has centered on encouraging girls and women to ride bicycles. With the support of M2M, Afghanistan now has a women’s cycling team, aiming for the 2020 Olympics. The organization’s founder, Shannon Galpin, explained the motivations for her work and the reasons why bikes bring change.
“No matter how high the mountain, there is always a road.”
This Afghan proverb is the motto of Shannon Galpin’s book Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan. It is also a fitting description of the work of the human-rights activist and cyclist who has been helping improve the lives of girls and women worldwide. Through the organization she founded in 2006, Mountain2Mountain, Galpin has used bicycles as an important means of personal and societal transportation and transformation.
In an interview for The Bike Show on KBOO radio in Portland, Galpin explained that she established Mountain2Mountain in order to work with girls and women in conflict zones. “I chose Afghanistan because it is repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman,” she said. “I felt that if you start the fight against gender violence and for equality then why not there?”
In Afghan cities, there has been an improvement in women’s situation is better. There are women in parliament, women activists, and education levels are quite high. “But that is not the case for the majority of women,” Galpin pointed out. In rural communities, women’s status is quite grim. They are still sold and traded as wives, from a young age, and not allowed to leave their homes without a male escort. Trying to change this situation, Galpin’s foundation provides educational supplies, establishes computer labs in girls’ schools, and built a women’s heroin rehabilitation center. Mountain2Mountain has also worked to provide cycling opportunities for Afghan women by donating cycling gear and repair tools, and training the national women’s team.
Although Galpin has a bicycle with her wherever she goes, biking was not part of the plan for her work in Afghanistan. “It is one of the countries in the world where girls and women just don’t ride bikes. It is it a taboo, it could literally bring dishonor to families.” At the same time, she saw that in urban areas, girls participated in volleyball, boxing, and skateboarding. She found it curious that the country was moving forward in those sports, yet biking was still so controversial.
Galpin herself was able to ride her bike in Afghanistan. Being a western woman afforded special treatment as “an honorary male, a hybrid” and allowed travel where there were no other women cyclists. She found riding a wonderful way to explore the landscape in a more immediate and intimate way, which encouraged interactions. Galpin is often invited into homes and hosted by the men of the house, while women remain hidden, except when serving the food. Often Galpin raises the question of why girls are not allowed to ride. She makes the case that bikes would enable girls in rural communities to go to school. They would allow midwives to increase their mobility to serve communities. Bicycle-riding would also boost girls’ safety and sense of independence and confidence, thus helping to prevent gender violence. Galpin says that she never pushes in her conversations with men, because the reaction is always that cycling is not part of the culture and is inappropriate for girls. Her hope is that as more and more girls start riding, this attitude will change.
Galpin’s own journey from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Afghanistan was shaped by tragedy. She embarked on a career as a dancer, but after being raped and stabbed she had to abandon that dream. For over a decade she lived in Europe and the Middle East, working as an athletic trainer. She returned to the U.S., but after her sister too was raped, Shannon was determined to do something to end violence against women and improve the lot of females around the world. “I wanted to change the world and nothing was going to stop me from trying. The stakes were too high.”
This resolve was magnified when Galpin became a parent. She wanted to ensure that her daughter, Devon, would inherit a better world. “It is only a matter of chance that you are born in one country and not another and the lives of Afghan girls are not less important than those of American girls,” she said. “Somebody needs to fight for them. Somebody needs to speak up for them when they are unable, and someone needs to share their stories. There is no excuse for not being involved, in your community or half way around the world.“
One of Galpin’s current projects is training the Afghan national women’s cycling team. A chance meeting with a member of the men’s team convinced her to help build a women’s team. Conditions for establishing a team are far from ideal, as the pool of athletes is small, equipment scant, and paved, safe roads are few. The women riders participated recently in the Asian Cycling Championship, but they are a long way from being internationally competitive. Still, they overcome obstacles, including family opposition and physical threats, with dedication and love of the sport. The women usually ride in the morning to avoid harassment, wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and head scarves under their helmets.
The women’s stories form part of a documentary-in-progress Afghan Cycles, directed by Sarah Menzies and due for a 2016 release. In the film, we meet such women as Nasifa, whose father was killed, and who started riding when in high-school. She studies to become a midwife, a job of great need in a country where maternal and infant mortality are among the highest in the world, and one which will enable her to support her family. Nasifa explains that she wants to continue riding—and even dreams of the Olympics–but recognizes that might not happen if she gets married and her husband objects. We also meet two teenagers (one who lives in the USA and the other who learned to cycle while in a refugee camp in Iran) who encourage other girls to join them on their rides.
While Afghani girls and women who wish to hop on a bicycle face daunting barriers, Galpin notes that American and European females were in a similar predicament one hundred years ago. They too were labeled immoral and promiscuous. But as more and more women started to ride, it became more normal, and cycling developed along with the movement for women’s rights. The bicycle was a symbol of mobility and freedom for women in Europe and America. “I see this happening in Afghanistan,” Galpin said, “whether or not this can really take roots is yet to be seen. There is a good chance that women’s rights will slide backwards, but you have girls that are very aware that we have the right to ride bikes, the same as our brothers. It is unfolding organically, led by Afghans.”
Galpin’s work in Afghanistan challenges us to look beyond the victimhood of girls and women, to see their courage, and hear their voices. A recurring theme in her book and Menzies’ documentary is that victims are not restricted by the violent acts they endure–and that they can be a catalyst for change. As Galpin points out, “Both my sister and myself are ‘victims of gender violence,’ but we are not victims. We are both incredibly strong and independent women, we are both athletes, and we both found that we have more strength than weakness. I see that in Afghanistan as well. There is a deep well of strength and resistance in Afghani women that I recognize, that is coming from a life where most have experienced a form of violence, whether a full-blown assault on them or their family, or relocation. They have really shown themselves to be much more than victims.”
Galpin’s next project with Mountain2Mountain is called “Strength in Numbers.” It aims to further develop the Afghani women’s cycling team, with the aim of competing at the 2020 Olympics, and to link riders from Afghanistan with women cyclists from other countries. Beyond Afghanistan, the program looks to use biking as a way to empower women from around the world who have suffered violence. The name of the program, Galpin explained, is based on the belief that “while one person can make a change, there is strength in numbers, and we can create an army of women, an army of activists and cyclists that could literally change the world.”
Alon Raab teaches religious studies at UC Davis. He is editor of the books The Global Game: Writers on Soccer and Soccer in the Middle East, and he has written several articles and essays on soccer, cycling, religion, and politics in the Middle East.