- Female athletes from the Afghan national cycling team are leading training sessions in Kabul to encourage young women to get on their bikes.
- The team currently faces significant challenges including a lack of resources and a lack of security.
Almost every morning, before rush hour clogs up the streets of Kabul, professional athlete Rukhsar Habibzai puts on her helmet, goggles and cycling shoes and rides door-to-door picking up women for a training session around Afghanistan's capital.
Many in the conservative country see cycling as a sport reserved for men, so for Habibzai and the dozens of other cyclists on the national women's team riding is about fighting the taboo and claiming equal space on the city's streets.
With Kabul's air cleaner than usual following the coronavirus lockdown and the city announcing it will soon create its first cycle lanes, Habibzai and her teammates are zipping around town to encourage more young women to get on their bikes.
"I always thought to myself, if the rights of men and women are equal, why don't girls ride bicycles in Afghanistan?," asked the 24-year-old team captain, sporting a bright pink jacket on an early morning training session.
"And that is why I decided to become a model for many Afghan girls to follow, to challenge the restrictions and start riding bicycles," Habibzai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Under the supervision of the Afghanistan Cycling Federation, close to 30 young women are registered for regular training sessions in Kabul. That's up from only a couple in April, said Habibzai.
Fazli Ahmad Fazli, president of the Afghan Cycling Federation, said that cycling competitions would also be held in various Afghan provinces each month to encourage women to take up cycling.
Still, even Kabul, which is generally perceived by residents as the safest city in the country, male members of the cycling federation accompany the women during their training sessions to try to avert the bullying they often experience.
Some of the women cyclists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they have been verbally and physically assaulted by passersby, and have even been pelted with stones and water.
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"It is quite a surprise for them (onlookers) to see girls riding bicycles in the street," said Habibzai, who has been cycling for more than five years.
"Two weeks ago, a car hit one of our colleagues deliberately," she added.
According to historical accounts, before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Kabul was seen as an emerging and progressive city, where it was common to see women and girls riding bicycles.
That changed during the Soviet occupation and after, when fighting among different mujahideen factions and then the Taliban's brutal regime from 1996 to 2001 brought strict laws that stripped women of many of their rights, noted Kabul-based researcher and writer Nezam Uddin.
While women have made huge strides since the end of Taliban rule, with growing numbers earning an education and working in previously male bastions, they continue to face harassment and hurdles, human rights activists say.
"Despite the nearly 20 years of massive international engagement, funding and relative peace, Afghanistan in general - and Kabul, in particular - has not returned to the same level of social equality and acceptance," Uddin added in a phone interview.
Sajida Diljam is among the younger female cyclists who have been inspired to change that.
As she cruised down a hill to join the rest of the group one sunny summer morning, the 24-year-old shows off the bicycle drawn neatly on her wrist with permanent marker.
"I have always had a personal interest (in cycling) and wanted it to become a common practice for girls," said Diljam, who joined the group when it started last year.
Habibzai explained that every woman who joins must be at least 15 years old and get the consent of her parents. There is no fee, she added.
Like her mentor Habibzai, Diljam dreams of one day taking the team to cycling events on the world stage, such as the Tour de France and the Olympics.
For now, that dream seems out of reach.
"We face a lack of resources and a lack of security. In the rest of the world, there is plenty of investment in sportsmen and women," Diljam said, adding that the bike she is riding belongs to a friend and they have to share it for training.
Another issue is road safety, the cyclists say.
With no dedicated cycle lanes or training grounds, they say they have no choice but to go out riding at dawn, before the roads are filled with Kabul's chaotic traffic.
During longer practice sessions, when they have to work on stamina, and time and speed management, the young women find themselves dodging cars, trucks, and cruising security convoys.
The government's cycling lane project has been delayed by long-awaited peace negotiations with the Taliban, with only one lane having been added since June, said residents.
In the meantime, the young women say they will continue to cycle together, going door-to-door to support each other as they pedal toward equality and personal freedom.
But for many of the young women cyclists, the ride proves too tough.
"We live in a country where riding bicycles is a matter of honour for girls. We make it clear to the new girls interested in joining us that there are many challenges ... only those willing to face these challenges can come and ride bicycles," said Habibzai.