I fluctuate somewhere between believing that the reasons for pessimism are overwhelming and accepting that history is a good reminder of how far we’ve come and how much we’re capable of. There’s an old story about a moment in Civil Rights history when a Time magazine journalist told Cornell West that in the darkness of all that had been done to the black community she was amazed by his optimism. West famously turned to the journalist, lowered his glasses and in his deep Californian tones replied:
“Lady, I know nothing of optimism and nothing of pessimism for I have become a slave to hope.”
I like that. I like that just when it seems like reasons for despair are overwhelming small, low key pockets of resistance remind us of what it is otherwise all too difficult to see.
It’s a depressing wet Wednesday afternoon and I’m struggling to work out why a prospective client wont reply to my emails. Through the kitchen door I can hear the murmuring of Radio 4. Such dulcet tones are doing little to lift my spirits.
Suddenly and as if from no where, the sound of three incongrous words pierce the darkness like children playing in Auschwitz snow or an old black lady refusing to move to the back of the bus. ‘Cycling’, ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘Women’ are not words which we have been led to recognise as supportive of one another. Yet I am absolutely sure that the description of an Afghan women’s cycling team has just began to flood this room with light.
In one move my email box is closed and the volume dial turned up. In utter amazement I listen to David Loyn tell the incredible story of an Afghan Women’s Cycling. Young, gifted, determined, vulnerable, outsiders doing the thing they love and slowly changing the face of a nation.
Behind this story there are two remarkable characters Shannon Galpim of the American charity Mountain2Mountain and the team coach Abdul Sadiq (Afghanistan’s only professional cyclist). But the real heroes are without doubt the team of women riders.
Before sunrise they hit the broken roads out of Kabul ensuring that they return to their training base before sunrise and the opposition of local men (often their relatives).
“We want to go cycling because we want to be heroes one day” Jella, 16yrs, Kabul
Forget images of a lycra clad peleton rolling across beautiful alpine roads. Loyn’s program narrates a team who train in baggy tracksuits across broken roads and on bikes less technically brilliant then those many of us use for our daily commute. Remember that this is in a land where many women are unable to leave their homes without a husband, brother or father. Add to this the context of families who fear that their support might endanger the lives of all their children and you soon realise what Loyn is narrating a most incredible story.
There is much in the cycling press which passes for little more than cathartic self interest but this is real news, real hope, the bicycle at its best. Yes it's small scale and low key; but isn’t that how great things always begin.
While the support of Giant’s Liv program is enabling a significant input of physical resources the most moving change is evidenced not in the bikes, the helmets or the training gear but in the lives of the riders who commit themselves, despite enormous dangers, to what they describe as ‘the pursuit of freedom’. Brave individuals slowly changing not only their own society, culture and traditions but the perceptions of miserable, middle aged men sat staring at their computers on a wet Wednesday afternoon.
Why this really matters is because just like back in the UK the achievements of the elite inspire change amongst the masses and in Afghanistan change amongst the masses is a matter of life and death. Change means female teachers riding to remote schools where men are not allowed to teach young girls or midwives cycling to remote villages where too many children and women still die in childbirth.
None of this should be a surprise. The bicycle has always been a tool for change. For the Suffragettes cycling was a vital symbol of women’s equality. In the early 20th century the bicycle provided women with real social and economic mobility and today the bicycle is providing vital employment training to some of our most vulnerable young women in our communities.
These guys deserve our support if you’d like to donate to Mountain2Mountain simply follow the link and give what you can.
If you’d like to be part of inspiring more women to cycle in the UK why not connect with the incredible Breeze Rides network and do what you can to nurture new opportunities for ‘not yet cyclists’.