It is illegal for women to ride bikes in Afghanistan. However, bikes have long been a “symbol of freedom of mobility.” In the United States, they were used as such during the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1990s.
M2M was founded in 2006 by Shannon Galpin. In 2009, she became the fist woman to bike across Afghanistan. The goal of this mission was to “challenge perceptions of gender.” One of her biggest inspirations was the four years she worked in Kandahar prison. In this all women’s Afghan prison, Galpin found that women there lacked a voice. These women had passionate stories of struggle and injustice and Galpin wanted to help them be heard.
This inspired the creation of two M2M projects, Combat Apathy and Strength in Numbers. Combat Apathy is the activist wing of M2M and is an online platform where women and men can share their stories of hardship and triumph. Strength in Numbers, or SIN, is a campaign to create awareness and support for women on bikes.
There will be a summit this fall in Rome for SIN in which expansion to other countries will be attempted, as well as a solidarity ride. The project is also organizing U.S. based summer bike camps, which are aimed at young girls who are at risk or have experienced gender violence.
In Afghanistan, though, the biggest accomplishment for the SIN campaign is their support of the women’s cycling team. The project gives support to the team in the form of buying equipment, recruiting coaches, securing sponsorships, arraigning safe travel to and from training and financing regional traveling. SIN has even petitioned for the cycling team’s access as observers to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, with further efforts to gain access to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
An attempt at expanding the movement outside Kabul has also begun by starting the first women’s mountain biking team in the province of Bamiyan. The team is financed by SIN and given gear and clothing.
The press coverage and international media attention have helped raise the popularity of the cycling team and there has been evidence of growing national pride. This changing perception will help advance women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The goal of the Afghan women’s cycling team is to give women a chance to achieve freedom in an otherwise oppressive country. Cycling on the team is not just about exercise or confidence building for these women. Its about all Afghan women who can gain greater access to education and healthcare by riding bikes. Access to both leads to higher literacy rates and lower maternal mortality.
These women cyclist are extremely brave as they endure a lot of criticism and even violence for their actions: rocks are often thrown at them as they ride and they are insulted by passing cars.
One of the team members, Marjan Sidiqqi, said that, “They tell us that it is not our right to ride our bikes in the streets and such. We tell them that this is our right and that they are taking our right away. Then we speed off.” This is a bold thing to say in a country where many still believe that women who ride bikes dishonor their families and that women’s cycling is a moral crime slightly worse than adultery.
Mountain2Mountain is still in its infancy, so data on the nonprofit is hard to find. It has not yet been reviewed on charity network and not been completely evaluated by GuideStar. This does not mean it is illegitimate, only that attention should be paid to its development and individual and government donors should keep an eye out for possible support now or in future.
— Eleni Marino