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Teenage cycling prodigy leads Afghan women to new freedoms

Sidestepping threats and jeers, the Afghan women on the country's national cycling team are risking their lives to compete and doing their part to help women's rights race forward in the war-torn nation. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

By Mike Taibbi, Correspondent, NBC News

KABUL, Afghanistan --  Salma Kakar just turned 16 but she’s already leading a revolution on two wheels.

She’s the lead rider on the new Afghan National Cycling Team and, says Coach Abdul Seddiqi, the joyous face of a new phenomenon in the war-torn country: females riding bikes. 

“I assure you...in the next two or three years you will find girls and women riding bikes, all over Kabul," said Seddiqi.

Right now, even though Seddiqi says scores of young girls are waiting in the wings, it’s just Salma and her dozen female teammates making a statement in the face of Afghanistan’s male-dominated society: that while women rarely drive cars almost never ride bikes, that’s now history.

“We are changing minds,” Salma said through an interpreter.  Then, her serious expression changed back to the 100-watt smile that glows like a headlamp when she rides.

Her dream, she says, is “to wave the flag of Afghanistan in the Olympics, to prove to the world that women in Afghanistan have progressed.”

Taking risks to ride

To get there, Salma and the team have a guardian angel in the U.S.: Colorado cyclist Shannon Galpin, who spent years doing relief work in Afghanistan and, in the process, rode her own bike over miles of the country’s remote mountain trails.

Galpin met Seddiqi and set up nonprofit Mountain2Mountain to find donors of bikes and gear to get the national team off the ground.  And when Seddiqi told her he planned to have a co-ed team, something Galpin hadn’t anticipated, she kicked her non-profit into overdrive.

“If they’re willing to take the risks ... then the least we can do is support them,” Galpin said of the female riders racing against tradition.

The bicycle has become a vehicle for social change among a group of Afghan women. Shannon Galpin, a Colorado mountain biker, is helping to push boundaries by nurturing the first-ever Afghan women's national cycling team with dreams of Olympic glory. 

It’s not an easy road, of course; change in this stubborn, struggling country never is. Seddiqi has the team train in secret, changing locations, sometimes at night.  His female riders, all of them “good Muslims,” wear long pants and full sleeves, and headscarves under their helmets. They still get yelled at; and there have been death threats.

And at Jada Maiwand, Kabul’s main bicycle emporium where hundreds of male riders gather every morning to tinker with their bikes or buy or trade for a new one, the very idea of women riding bikes -- to go to work, to the market, or anywhere -- gets a uniform "No!"

“Women should be in the home, in the kitchen,” one bike shop owner said. “And if they are outside, their faces should be covered.”

“Some men try to humiliate us,” Salma said. “But more and more they encourage us.” 

A symbol of freedom

With a mother who’s a pediatrician, a father who’s an engineer, and a big sister who publishes Afghanistan’s first feminist magazine, "Riudad," Salma says women will be riding bikes from now on, and other freedoms will follow.

Galpin, ready to bring another roomful of high-end bikes and gear to Salma and her teammates, says bikes have always been a symbol of freedom, even in the U.S. where the women won the right to vote soon after they first started riding bikes over the objections of men at the dawn of the 20th century.

“I did not expect to see Afghan women biking now,” Galpin said. “I thought it was still several years off.  But the bike is an incredible vehicle for social justice … a vehicle for change.”

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