Empowering Women in Afghanistan Through Mountain Bikes

Col­orado-based cyclist and 2013 Nat Geo Adven­tur­er of the Year, Shan­non Galpin, became the first woman to moun­tain bike in Afghanistan in 2009, and is now using the bicy­cle as a vehi­cle for social change.

She talked to us about her inspir­ing work, her love for cycling and how she found a way to mar­ry the two.

The Clymb:  Can you share a bit of your cycling back­ground with our readers?
Shan­non Galpin:  I always rode a bike, but I did­n’t fall in love with bik­ing until I moved to Europe. It was liv­ing in Darm­stadt, Ger­many, rid­ing the for­est trails of the Oden­wald on the week­end and com­mut­ing to work dur­ing the week, that my love affair with the bike began. Near­ly ten years lat­er, dur­ing the sum­mer of 2007 while I was liv­ing in Breck­en­ridge, Colo., I was turned on to moun­tain biking—in par­tic­u­lar sin­gle-speed moun­tain biking—and I haven’t stopped ped­al­ing since.

I start­ed rac­ing the first sum­mer I got on a moun­tain bike, and raced a few races in Win­ter Park in 2007 and 2008, always plac­ing or win­ning over­all. But keep in mind the sin­gle­speed wom­en’s cat­e­go­ry was quite small. I also did an unsup­port­ed solo one-day ride of the White Rim in Moab in 2007 and real­ized that I loved the explo­ration by bike much more than rac­ing itself, although I enjoyed the chal­lenge of both. The irony is that I fell in love with moun­tain bik­ing the same year I found­ed Mountain2Mountain and decid­ed to start work­ing in Afghanistan.

The Clymb:  Can you tell us about win­ning the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Adven­tur­er of the Year award? Was it a surprise?
SG:  It was a com­plete sur­prise as I had no idea I had been nom­i­nat­ed. Ten peo­ple are cho­sen each year from around the world, and I nev­er would have con­sid­ered myself part of that world. It’s an incred­i­ble hon­or to be cho­sen. Nation­al Geo­graph­ic is a his­toric insti­tu­tion that gives a lev­el of grav­i­tas and legit­i­ma­cy to every­thing it asso­ciates itself with, and I was real­ly hum­bled I would be cho­sen for my human­i­tar­i­an work and the way I weave adven­ture through my life and my activism. They seemed to rec­og­nize me for what I am first and foremost—an activist—and saw that adven­ture is sim­ply a part of how I live my life ver­sus a goal I chase.

The Clymb:  You were the first woman to moun­tain bike in Afghanistan. What inspired that bike ride and what went into prepar­ing for the trip?
SG:  I start­ed work­ing in Afghanistan in 2009 and it was then I dis­cov­ered that women and girls are not allowed to ride bikes. I was focused on oth­er projects, but on a road trip to the north­ern part of Afghanistan I was struck by the beau­ty of the moun­tains and the criss­cross­ing goat paths that could be explored on foot. The pos­si­bil­i­ty that they could also be explored by bike sparked a curios­i­ty in me. I start­ed ask­ing ques­tions and decid­ed to bring my bike with me on my next trip. I rode in the Pan­jshir Val­ley for the first time in 2009, on a series of small exper­i­men­tal rides along the val­ley to gauge the reac­tion of the locals I encountered.

Here I was, an Amer­i­can woman doing some­thing local women were not allowed to do, and no one was real­ly sure how the locals would react. Yet, time and time again, the reac­tion was curios­i­ty, not ani­mos­i­ty. The bike became an ice­break­er to trail­side and road­side con­ver­sa­tions about myself, my cul­ture, my work, and their cul­ture, their com­mu­ni­ty and their family—all of which allowed me to dig deep­er with ques­tions about this deep-seat­ed taboo.

I began to ride on every vis­it to Afghanistan in a dif­fer­ent area, depend­ing on where I was work­ing. A year lat­er, I embarked on a length­i­er jour­ney across the Pan­jshir Val­ley, which I tied into a series of bike rides and fundrais­ers back home, in the US, to take part on the same day as a means to con­nect com­mu­ni­ties and cul­ture and raise mon­ey and aware­ness for projects that ben­e­fit­ted girls. That ride, dubbed the Pan­jshir Tour, was meant to high­light the sit­u­a­tion for women and girls in Afghanistan, and the work I was doing, through the vehi­cle of a bike.

The Clymb:  Can you tell us about the trip itself? How long it was, the routes you took?
SG:  I have been to Afghanistan 19 times now and I have rid­den a bike on almost every trip except the first two. Explor­ing dif­fer­ent areas of the coun­try where I was work­ing, tak­ing time to revis­it vil­lages and fam­i­lies, I real­ized the bike was becom­ing an impor­tant part of my work.

I did­n’t expect to find girls on bikes for a long time as it was clear to every­one I spoke with that girls rid­ing bikes was not accept­able. Yet, in 2012, I met a mem­ber of the men’s cycling team who intro­duced me to his coach who, as it turns out, was also coach­ing a wom­en’s team. My mind was blown wide open and I imme­di­ate­ly dove in head­first to sup­port the team and look at how the chang­ing sit­u­a­tion of Afghanistan could allow a shift in this con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject. Could girls be allowed to ride bikes just like boys some­day? Could we use bikes as a vehi­cle for social jus­tice like we see in oth­er coun­tries (to pro­vide access to school and med­ical care, and reduce the rates of gen­der vio­lence against young women often attacked when walking)?

It was a small rip in a fab­ric that was begin­ning to tear wide open in the post-Tal­iban era of Afghanistan that was see­ing huge leaps for­ward in wom­en’s empow­er­ment and oppor­tu­ni­ties. Per­haps the bike could be an inte­gral part of future wom­en’s rights move­ments by pro­vid­ing inde­pen­dent mobil­i­ty and free­dom of opportunity.

The Clymb: 

 That bike ride inspired a book (Moun­tain to Moun­tain). Can you tell us a bit about it?
SG:  Moun­tain to Moun­tain was inspired by the desire to show the world an authen­tic exam­ple of what the jour­ney of an activist looks like and what it’s like to be a sur­vivor of gen­der vio­lence, a moth­er, an adven­tur­er, a trav­el­er, an activist and an ath­lete all rolled up inside one body.

I want­ed to open up the dis­cus­sion about the choic­es we make, and the active role we all need to play as cit­i­zens in our glob­al com­mu­ni­ty. The bike is part of what makes me stronger. And the irony is that the bike is now part of my work—as a vehi­cle for social jus­tice a tool and sym­bol of free­dom and the wom­en’s rights movement.

But the book was nev­er meant to be about the bike or a par­tic­u­lar ride. The book is about the jour­ney one woman took to con­front her demons, make a dif­fer­ence in the world and set an exam­ple for her daughter—and to the world around her—that indi­vid­ual action mat­ters and that change is possible.

The Clymb:  Did see­ing the plight of women in Afghanistan inspire your cre­ation of the non-prof­it Mountain2Mountain or was it some­thing already in the works?
SG:  Mountain2Mountain was found­ed by me on Thanks­giv­ing 2006, but did­n’t offi­cial­ly become a non-prof­it until 2009. I start­ed by col­lab­o­rat­ing with two non-prof­its to fundraise and learn the tools to moti­vate com­mu­ni­ties into action. When I real­ized I knew what I want­ed to do out­side the tra­di­tion­al con­structs of inter­na­tion­al aid and for­eign devel­op­ment, I formed my own non-prof­it and chose Afghanistan as my launch­ing off point.

I went there in 2008 on a lis­ten­ing tour of sorts. I want­ed to under­stand the sit­u­a­tion for women in a coun­try repeat­ed­ly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. I want­ed to under­stand what ingre­di­ents are nec­es­sary for gen­der vio­lence and oppression.

I under­took a vari­ety of projects (sup­port­ing schools; cre­at­ing com­put­er labs; col­lab­o­rat­ing on graf­fi­ti art projects; cre­at­ing the pho­tog­ra­phy-based, street art installation—Streets of Afghanistan; work­ing inside wom­en’s pris­ons; and spear­head­ing a school for the deaf) dur­ing the four years I was work­ing there before I start­ed work­ing with the cycling pro­gram and cre­at­ing the Strength in Num­bers pro­gram which encom­pass­es the Afghan nation­al cycling team, the bur­geon­ing girls bike clubs sprout­ing up and the cre­ation of pro­grams that would sup­port oth­er girls in oth­er coun­tries through bike camps as a means to spark com­mu­ni­ty based activism.