Can a revolution spring from the wheels of a cycle? You have only to look at India to understand how.
In the video clip that my friend has sent me of his six-year-old daughter’s gang of bikers, the kids are doing a pretty good job of talking tough and looking mean. Dressed in her favourite pink, his daughter slaps her friend across the back, squints her eyes and in her best mean-girl style drawls: Aiyyo.
Ever since her birth, my friends have been determined to make their daughter an athlete. The cycling gang—Alia, Malia, Jennifer and, the sole boy, Neel—that now meets every evening in Bengaluru is part of that education. I don’t know if their six-year-old will, like her mom, become a state-level athlete. I do know she is already free.
Cycling and feminism have a long history. In late 19th century America, it was the bicycle that quite literally gave women the means to both speed away from interfering chaperones and discard cumbersome corsets and skirts in favour of more practical clothes, writes Sue Macy in Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom.
From 19th century America to 21st century Afghanistan, how much (or little) has changed can be judged from the recent nomination of the national women’s cycling team for the Nobel Peace Prize. The team has been nominated by a group of 118 Italian lawmakers for “promoting the most democratic means of transportation for all mankind".
But that’s only half the story. What’s a perfectly humdrum, if somewhat rowdy, activity for a bunch of six-year-olds in Bengaluru, is, 2,500 km away in Kabul, an astoundingly heroic act for a group of women.
To understand how and why, I spoke with 24-year-old Zahra Hussaini, the leader of the 40-member women’s team of the Afghan Cycling Federation, who was, interestingly, brought up as a bacha posh—a cultural practice in which girls are dressed in boys’ clothes and are, in fact, brought up as boys. “As a child, it was easy for me to cycle because I was brought up as a boy. So, it was no big deal," she says through a translator over Skype.
The family was less relaxed when, at 13, Zahra declared her intention to go professional. “They said girls had no business to cycle. They said that since my parents had died, I could not be given the freedom to cycle."
With the encouragement of an elder sister and brother-in-law, Zahra persisted and five years ago became a part of the first women’s cycling team in Bamiyan. “As a human being, I have every right to ride a cycle. Cycling sets me free," she says.
To get a sense of what a woman on a cycle in Afghanistan must endure, I watched Afghan Cycles (mintne.ws/1YiLtME) a short film about the national women’s team and the non-profit, Mountain2Mountain, that has been promoting a bicycle revolution among Afghanistan’s women.
In it, Shannon Galpin, the American who heads Mountain2Mountain, talks of how, back in 2009 when she first arrived in Kabul, she was the only woman with a mountain bike. She searched for other women and girls on bikes but failed to find one. Then, in 2012, a chance meeting with the men’s cycling team led her to the discovery that girls had in fact begun riding on cycles to get to college.
But the deep-seated taboo about women riding bicycles in Afghanistan persists, says Galpin. “Straddling a bike is provocative and immoral," she says. So, the women who are now part of the national cycling team have had rocks and insults flung at them. And, yet, these are not women who set out to be revolutionaries, she points out. They cycle simply because, like Zahra, they believe they “have a right to do so".
Can a revolution spring from the wheels of a cycle?
You have only to look at India to understand how.
Launched in 2007, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna, under which girls are given a cheque of 2,000 to buy a cycle after clearing the class VII exams, brought down the number of girl dropouts from 2.5 million a year to 1 million a year in the first three years alone. Today, Bihar is among the top three states in India where there are more girls than boys enrolled in primary and secondary schools.
In the North-East, women’s self-help groups in 2010 started an innovative bicycle bank to increase women’s mobility and promote micro enterprises among women entrepreneurs.
Back in Afghanistan, Zahra tells me there is pressure on her to get married, but she does not plan on finding herself a husband any time soon. “It’s not that I’m against the idea," she says. “But I must find the right man, a man who is willing to do housework and cook, otherwise I am not interested."
Put a woman on a cycle and she starts believing in equal rights. Isn’t that what revolutions are made of?
My thanks to Ruchi Kumar and Enayatullah Azad in Kabul who helped with this column.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint and can be reached at email@example.com.