Although it’s winter in Colorado, I can’t get bikes off my mind. I grew up on two wheels, tearing up the neighborhood to visit friends, savoring the freedom, the mobility, the wind in my face, and then eight years ago fell in love with mountain bikes. It wasn’t, however, until I started working in Afghanistan that I really understood that a bike could be more than just a bike. This simple two-wheeled vehicle could also be a tool for social justice, providing easier access to schools, allowing midwives to better serve their rural communities, and giving girls a tool to prevent sexual assault and harassment.
Today I work with a group of young women in that war-torn country who are breaking cultural barriers and risking their honor to ride bikes as members of the national women’s cycling team. These young women are among the first generation of Afghan women to challenge deep-seated taboos, and they do so despite insults, harassments, and threats. They ride on IED-strewn roads, on trucking highways with no shoulders, and through the police checkpoints that dot the city streets.
Amazingly, over the past two years since I first met the national cycling team, more groups of girls have emerged in other areas of the country, watching their brothers ride, and they have decided that they too had the right to find their freedom, and they’ve begun borrowing bikes and teaching each other to ride, also.
The story of these courageous young women has inspired the upcoming documentary, Afghan Cycles, which is set to premiere in 2016. They have raced in India, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan; most recently were invited to compete at the Asia Games in South Korea; and the Danish clothing company NOA NOA launched an advertising campaign in support of the Afghan team centered around the concept of the “strength of women.”
Recently, the team was invited to Italy and England to take part in a series of rides and events, and a Swedish company committed to an ad campaign focused on the bravery of female athletes. Shirzanan Global, a magazine focused on Muslim female athletes, partnered with RAGBRAI, the famous bike race across Iowa, to bring a team of Muslim female cyclists to the States, hopefully including one or two of the Afghan riders, for this summer’s event. These are all amazing steps for young women who have just learned to ride in a country that is still considered one of the worst in the world to be female.
Then the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened. They were heart-breaking. Horrifying. Tragic. In the weeks that passed, there was more horror: the rise of ISIS, public beheadings of kidnapped journalists, Boko Harem kidnapping young girls and terrorizing villages, the ongoing Syrian conflict, and the Taliban’s insurgency as the U.S. withdraws out of Afghanistan, all conflating the view that Muslims are terrorists and giving Islamaphobia fertile soil in which to take root.
Fear, alas, is perhaps the biggest threat to freedom. Self censoring begins, often by those scared but not directly threatened, allowing the bullies to win and freedoms to roll back. Just a few days ago, two of the cycling team’s biggest supporters pulled out, one in Italy and one in Sweden, both citing an aversion to potential controversy in the wake of the Paris attacks. The Swedish company was creating an ad campaign around the team, much as NOA NOA did last fall, and was paying a stipend to help cover racing costs this year. The company’s underwriting would have dramatically elevated the team’s exposure and raised much-needed financial support. Now, less than two months before we were to fly the team to India for filming, the underwriting is gone. Gone because of fear.
The Swedes could have been bold and brave and gotten ahead of the story. They could have led. Instead, they censored themselves and abandoned their social responsibility. Their company could have driven social change in a positive way, with a unique opportunity, as it once promised, but it didn’t. Rather, it let down a team of young women who are all too well-versed in disappointment and threats, and gave in to fear. The girls will get by, of course; a loss of funding hurts, but it pales compared to the threats they face every day. They will continue taking back the streets, claiming their rights, inspiring a global movement.
As most people know, the staff of Charlie Hebdo, despite unimaginable pain and loss, stood their ground. They published the next issue, on time, and with a press run that was four million copies more than usual. Threatened in the worst possible way, they stood tall in the face of violence, unwilling to let terrorists silence them. Fear would not make them cower.
You don’t use your voice or stand up for your beliefs because it’s easy to do so. You do these things because you are standing on the side of justice and reasoned behavior. This is not a privilege for the few, the wealthy, or the safe, this is the responsibility of all of us, because we’re at risk of giving away our freedoms every time we silence ourselves in fear. It is a company’s right to pull out, of course, but I find it telling that a bunch of teenage girls in a war zone is stronger than a corporation located in one of the safest places on earth.