By: Elyas Ahmadi
Afghan female cyclists are finding ways to get back on a bike despite the restrictions imposed by the Taliban against girls and women in sport.
Five former members of the Afghan Cyclist Federation have met in a Kabul to train together in secret. With the help of their male teammates, they managed to get three bicycles to share. But they only have one hour before they have to vacate the gym.
Even before the Taliban came to power, girls and women cycling in public was a taboo and frowned upon in many parts of Afghanistan. Now, with the Taliban in charge, it is next to impossible.
The two girls who aren’t on the bikes keep looking at their watches, worried the time will run out with little chance to satisfy their craving to ride again. Finally, it’s their turn.
Sharifa Shakeel*, 30, tucks her long hair under her cycling helmet and prepares to start training. She pedals around the hall picking up speed. She looks as though she is gearing up to take off. At one point, she slows down her bike to speak.
“Even during the republic, girls suffered a lot to continue their favorite sport.,” she says between fast breaths. “Now that the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) has come to power, we are not allowed to exercise. But because we have a lot of enthusiasm and interest, we practice secretly. Sometimes at home and sometimes in closed spaces like today.”
Another cyclist, Shamsia Alizai*, is riding happily around the hall, but her eyes show her underlying fear – they constantly dart towards the entry’s locked gate.
As well as being a member of the cycling federation, she was a soldier under the previous government for about eight years. She lives in fear for her life.
“We change our location constantly,” she says. “We stay for a while somewhere and then move to another place.”
Ms. Alizai was studying English in an educational center before the educational centers were closed to girls. “I don’t know how long I can survive,” she says. “I have been interrogated many times by the Taliban because of my clothing.”
Some of their male teammates have also shown up, at great risk to themselves also, to help the women train.
Baryalai*, 38, was a member of the Afghan Cycling Federation in the previous government. He is devastated by what’s happened since 2021.
“We have reached a situation where we are selling and giving away our household items,” he says.
Shams-ul-Haq Haqjoo*, 25, is another member of the federation, who these days helps his teammates to practice in secret.
He says that about three months ago, he went to Nuristan province for cycling. However, the Taliban temporarily detained him and seized his belongings in the Kolgosh district of the province. After that, he never went out to pedal on the highways.
Instead, with the help of Baryalai, he prepares training sessions for the women.
Fear of the Taliban and the verbal abuse of relatives
Some of the women are also keeping their practice from their families, who they say have threatened them.
Zahra Ahmadi*, 18, is the youngest remaining cyclist of the previous federation team who still exercises in secret.
Zahra had joined the federation about a year before the fall of the government in August 2021. She used to cycle in one of the most remote parts of Ghazni province, and after that, she was invited to join the Afghan Cycling Federation.
When she rides in the Kabul sports hall, a smile spreads across her face. But later, when she talks, there’s a thoughtful sadness in her eyes.
“They tell me, if you ride a bicycle again, we will inform the Taliban,” she says about her family.
Whenever she looks at the dirt bike in the corner of the yard, she feels very disappointed.
“I feel that my dreams have been crushed under someone’s feet. It’s hopeless,” she says. “I just hope one day I participate in competitions again; I know it’s not possible, in fact, I’m kind of waiting for a miracle.”
Like Zahra, Zarghuna Shadab*, 20, is abused by her family for her love of sport.
Before the fall of the previous government, in addition to being a member of the Federation, she was also an official member of the girls’ national football team. She spent almost all her days during the previous government doing sport. Now she remains indoors at home every day.
She has received threats from the Taliban for her sporting prowess, and her mother tells her it serves her right.
“She tells me, Whatever happens, you are responsible for that, I told you don’t take part in sports,” Zarghuna says.
Still, she is so excited to have the change to ride. She can hardly fit her long hair under the safety helmet. After a quick stretch of her muscles, she speeds away on one of the bikes.
Victims of corruption
The group of cyclists claim that the Swiss government gave humanitarian visas to the Afghan cyclists when Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed and the Taliban took over. But the head of the federation, Fazal Ahmed Fazli, swapped out their names for those of his relatives, acquittances, and friends.
In an interview with Rukhshana Media, former cycling champion Asma Paktiani* slams Mr Fazli with the accusation that he even did so for money.
“Fazli took 15 thousand dollars. He took care of himself and his people, even from his neighbors under the pretext of being a cyclist,” she says. ““Now that they have gone there, they can’t ride a bike at all.”
Ms Paktiani, 45, joined the Afghan Cycling Federation in the 1980s during the government of Dr. Najib and won the championship title in the Ghani government.
The corruption of Afghanistan’s cycling federation was well documented in a report published December 22, 2021, on SRF TV. In it, it discussed the corruption involved in the process of evacuating the cyclists after the fall of Kabul. It said the International Union of Cyclists prepared the ground for 165 cyclists to depart, of which 38 humanitarian visas were given to cyclists by the Swiss government.
David Larpatinet, the head of the International Union of Cyclists, is quoted as saying that the union sent a plane to Afghanistan and that plane had the capacity to transport all the cyclists. But due to the fact that the process in Afghanistan was not under control and some did not have travel documents, a number of cycling athletes have not been able to leave Afghanistan.
The members of the Federation, who have spoken to Rukhshana Media about being stopped from exiting, all say they had passports at the time of the evacuations.
The SRF report also discusses Mr. Fazli’s corruption, saying the head of the federation evacuated himself and most of his family, relatives and close friends instead of the athletes who were in danger.
After all the criticisms against Mr. Fazli, he has avoided the media. Rukhshana Media’s attempts to talk to Mr. Fazli have all gone unanswered.
*Note: The names of cyclists in the report are pseudonyms