It was surprising to me how girls reacted when I brought up the idea of having a group of girls go biking in the streets of Kabul. What I expected was some hesitation and uncertainty about a girl sitting on a bike. But instead it seemed like they were waiting for an opportunity like this to just sit on a bike, ride on Kabul’s streets, and demonstrate their freedom. Everyone was excited.
My friend Halima is a business student at a university in Kabul. When I asked her if she wanted to join us for a bike ride in Kabul she said she had never ridden a bike, but she would practice. I was impressed by her enthusiasm, but I was very surprised when she called me just a day later.
“Hey Fatima, I learned how to ride a bike last night. I am going to join you today!”
“Halima, I know you are excited, but biking is not something you can learn in one night and we are biking in the crowded streets of Kabul. I am not sure you would feel comfortable doing that! Are you sure you want to join?”
“I am going to be there, Fatima! See you!”
How could I not feel proud and delighted when I am surrounded by such girls? Halima’s commitment is just one example. These girls turn obstacles into opportunities. Halima did not give up on ever learning to ride a bike just because she did not learn as a child; instead, she made it an opportunity to discover a new skill.
The other day, I got a call from my friend Nahid who told me her sister had been riding her bike to school ever since I started the bike rides.
“Nice!” I told her. “She doesn’t get bothered by people or anything like that, right?”
“Some boys say things to her, but she has learned how to answer back and argue with them.”
“I hope that does not discourage her,” I said.
“Do not worry, she does not get discouraged easily. Instead, she has encouraged her classmates to go to school with bicycles. Now, one of her friends bikes along with her to school.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me! This is awesome!”
Most of the girls, including myself, had always thought that the only attitude we could expect from people, especially men, about girls biking in public in Kabul would be negative. However, we were wrong.
On our second group bike ride in Darlaman, an old man stopped us. To be honest, all of us were scared, but he told us: “You girls raise Afghanistan’s flag. Foreigners will change their minds about Afghanistan when they see you biking around. Let me tell you something, I am in charge of that park right there and I am not allowed to let bicycles inside, but today is a good day, and I am proud of you so I can make an exception!”
These encouragements help us to ignore the judgmental looks from others. Although many people in Afghanistan think a good Muslim girl should never sit on a bike, there are still people who give us a pat on our shoulders. We decided we would smile back at people who encourage us, rather than give up from the harassment that we receive from others. Although it can be a little bit scary to ride in public, if a girl has the courage to ride a bike, the chances that she will be stopped or physically hurt is very low.
I think the most important thing for girls is to take action. There is nothing in either the Qur’an or in our Constitution forbidding girls to ride a bike, so I believe girls should take advantage of biking.
People often ask me why I want to go biking. I tell them it is to make bike riding for girls a part of our culture. Some girls have to walk a long distance to get to their destination and it’s much faster on a bike. Afghanistan doesn’t offer girls many sport options and biking can serve as a perfect option for exercising.
It is unbelievable that in countries like Afghanistan we have to fight to make bike riding for girls acceptable for people or we have to have a complicated philosophy behind simply riding. My generation has to fight, but I hope our next generation gets the right to bike in Kabul freely.
I hope one day the domination of one sex in an activity stops, because a society really develops when both men and women can participate in all the activities. If bike riding for girls is not acceptable for people, it means we have a long way to civilization. Let girls bike, and civilization will be right in front of our doors.
Photo from Shahmoama’s Afghan Women Bike Project