As a member of the Afghan women’s national cycling team, 17-year-old Zhala Sarmast has grown used to the harassment she gets for riding her bike down the streets of Kabul. Local men, many who still adhere to the Taliban ideology that deems women who ride bikes as dishonorable, ridicule her as she whizzes past.
But one evening this summer, the harassment turned physical. As Sarmast pedaled down the street she uses as a training path, she was suddenly caught off guard by the sound of skateboard wheels grinding next to her.
“There was a man riding the skateboard, and he pushed me off my bike,” Sarmast says. He shoved her so hard, she broke her hand when she hit the ground. “When [he] realized I was hurt, he laughed at me, and that’s what made me start to cry.”
But Sarmast got back on her bike.
The Afghan women’s cycling team was first established in 1986, but was shut down during Soviet and then Taliban rule. Since re-establishing it in 2011, Sarmast and her two other teammates have refused to let cultural prejudice and physical risk keep them off their bikes. Their determination is the subject of the documentary Afghan Cycles, which is due for release in 2017 and earned them a nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. But allegations of corruption and abuse by their coach mean the team might only now be facing its biggest challenge.
Shannon Galpin, head of the US-based charity Mountain2Mountain, which seeks to empower women through education by providing access to bicycles, supported the team financially for four years. Before then, she had already traveled Afghanistan extensively by bike. “I would find myself in different parts of country having spontaneous conversations with men who would see me riding and because they were curious … about what I was doing in Afghanistan and why I was riding a bike,” she says.
In the autumn of 2012, she was introduced to Haji Abdul Sediq Seddiqi, who was then head of the Afghan Cycling Federation and coach of the country’s men’s cycling team. It turned out he was also coaching a women’s team of around seven girls. “It was very underground, and the girls had very little experience,” Galpin says. She offered to fund the women’s team and also helped out the federation with mentoring, training and coaching for other teams.
With Galpin’s support, the women’s team successfully challenged cultural notions of womanhood, faith and sport. A bike is a form of transportation and with transportation comes independence, so “keeping their daughters off bikes allows [fathers] to continue to control their daughters,” says Galpin. By riding a bicycle, a girl could also be seen as jeopardizing her chances of making a good marriage match. “It is believed by many in Afghanistan that riding a bike takes a girl’s virginity,” says Galpin. “If a girl doesn’t bleed on her wedding night, she will be sent back to her family, and her family will be shamed. So any risk to the girl’s hymen being broken is a real concern.”
Sarmast adds that many Afghans believe bike-riding is forbidden in Islam, “which isn’t actually true,” she says, adding that she blames lack of education for feeding the misperception.
Despite the team’s success as trailblazers, in August Galpin announced on her website that she was officially withdrawing her support for the Afghan Cycling Federation because of what she calls “inherent and illegal corruption” within the federation and the women’s national cycling team.
According to Galpin, Seddiqi had stolen money from the women’s team and was selling equipment that belonged to them, including bikes, for personal profit. Fatima Haidari, 19, founder of the Kabul-based Girl Up cycling club, who worked as a Farsi translator for Galpin during one summer in Afghanistan, says she translated a conversation between Galpin and Seddiqi where Galpin questioned the coach about the whereabouts of the missing bikes. “Shannon asked him what he had done with the bikes, and he couldn’t answer – he was just defensive,” she says.
Galpin says the last straw was when Seddiqi, who the girls call Coach, took them to India to compete in the Asian Cycling Championship, a trip that Galpin paid for. “He took the girls [to India] but never took them to race,” she says. Instead, she says, Seddiqi used Galpin’s money – and that of two other unsuspecting funders – to pay for fertility treatments for his wife.
Galpin also accuses Seddiqi of using the women’s cycling team as a front for prostitution and human smuggling. “The girls who are racing have not been affected,” she says. “There is an outer ring of girls he has brought on to the team who don’t train and don’t ride but who say they are part of the team, [but] instead [they] are prostitutes.” Some in Afghanistan’s cycling community also alleged that Seddiqi had married three of the girls on the women’s team.
Sarmast refused to comment on the allegations of prostitution, but she did confirm that while there are currently only three members who ride and compete for the women’s team, “there are many girls who are trying to get involved in our team.”
Seddiqi, who was recently fired from his roles as men’s coach and head of the federation, responded to the accusations in an interview with the New York Times, saying he had never been married to any of the team members. He also denied the charges of corruption, calling them “a lot of made-up crap.”
Galpin says she is trying to get the women’s team to follow the men’s team and drop Seddiqi as their coach. “The girls are scared to leave him; it’s almost like Stockholm syndrome,” she says. “The girls are scared that without Coach they won’t be able to continue to ride bikes [in the national team].”
When asked if the loss of Galpin’s funding has impacted her team, Sarmast says, “I know that we are losing sponsors, and our trips to cycle [in other countries] are getting canceled.” She finds the canceled travel plans particularly frustrating because it means the team loses out on opportunities to learn from other teams and coaches around the world.
But for Sarmast, the benefits of being on Afghanistan’s women’s cycling team outweigh the disappointments. Learning to ride a bike taught her to fight for her rights as a woman in Afghanistan, she says. Currently in her final year of high school, Sarmast hopes to study science and technology at Hamburg University in Germany next year. She says the simple act of riding a bike is an agent of change for girls like her: “Riding a bike was the very first action I took in fighting for my rights. It is a small thing, and there are many things that need to change. But we can all start with riding a bike – it is the first step.”