Pedaling a Revolution

By Galpin, Shannon | UN Chronicle, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Pedaling a Revolution


Galpin, Shannon, UN Chronicle


Eight years ago I began working in Afghanistan, which is repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman, let alone one fighting for women's rights. I came to the country on my own with questions centred around gender violence and equality. I was cognizant of my own preconceptions as an American woman, but as a victim of rape, and as a sister of a rape victim, I was working from a place of curiosity. What are the conditions necessary for widespread acceptance of gender violence and oppression? What are the similarities in how Afghanistan and the United States address women's rights, and where are the solutions? What does it take for women to have a voice?

As I travelled the country by car, by motorcycle, and eventually by mountain bike, I was able to experience it in a unique way While most of my counterparts in aid and development work were limited by security protocols and red tape, and embassy staff often could not even leave their compounds, I was able to weave my way through the country and to work in unique ways alongside locals. I slept on the floors of family homes in mountain villages and engaged in authentic and often intimate conversations with men and women outside of the parameters of a scheduled meeting or agenda. I delivered school supplies in remote mountain communities; spearheaded construction of a school for the deaf in Kabul; worked in women's prisons; created street art installations; and supported graffiti art projects with young artists in Kabul.

The past decade has seen an increase in the number of women running for public office and joining the police force and army; young activists marching in the streets to protest sexual harassment; and projects started by women for women that amplify their voice and solidify their role in a male-dominated society. Young, educated women are now determined to challenge the barriers that prevent equality and encourage oppression.

On my very first visit to Afghanistan, I realized, amid the cacophony and chaos of bicycles weaving through the urban streets and providing transportation in rural villages, that all the riders were men and boys. Not on any of the thousands of bikes on the Afghan streets did I see a female rider.

Around the rest of the world, especially throughout South Asia and Africa, bikes are used directly as tools for empowerment and social justice. They are accessible in local bicycle markets, are more affordable than cars or motorcycles and are easy to repair. Bicycles can also be used to improve health and are environmentally friendly. The independent mobility afforded by bikes increases access to school and medical care, and has been shown to reduce gender violence rates when girls are allowed to ride. As a victim of gender violence, I fell in love with bikes for another, less tangible reason. When I ride, I feel like the strongest, freest version of myself. I'm like Wonder Woman on two wheels, bulletproof and armed with my lasso of truth. That feeling is at the root of what I consider to be the most positive benefit of sport. It can't be quantified in simple numbers or statistics, but it is powerful beyond measure. Freedom and self-confidence should be the primary goal of all humanitarian work.

I began mountain biking in Afghanistan as a means of challenging and questioning the gender barrier that is deeply rooted in Afghan society and in the wider region, and to discover the reasons behind the deep-seated taboo that prevents girls from riding bikes. Two such reasons emerged at the heart of the issue: the first is related to virginity and honour, the second to independence and mobility.

Virginity and morality are practical concerns when one considers how women are valued in society and how their actions reflect on family honour. Girls are often only of value in terms of their ability to be married off; they must be virgins at the time of marriage. Proof of virginity comes on the wedding night with the appearance of blood. …

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