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Under Taliban threat, Afghan women cyclists burn their history

Caio Guatelli for Folha de S. Paulo

With the fundamentalist group Taliban’s return to power 20 years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, women cyclists eliminate their historical records of the sport. Fearing severe punishment of the Islamic religious law Sharia, which includes death by stoning, the cyclists burned photographs, diplomas, trophies and all their cycling equipment soon after American troops withdrew from the country, less than a month ago. 

The brutal takeover of Kabul by Taliban rebels on August 15th and the closure of the city’s international airport left cyclist and other athletes, as well as musicians and artists that do not fit the Sharia doctrine, in a vulnerable state. To burn their history and submit to the regime was the only option for those who could not board the chaotic American withdrawal“.

“Cycling is over in Afghanistan”, mourns a member of the Afghan Cycling Federation. For him, the ban of women in the sport and the restrictions to men – the Taliban prohibited tight clothes and shorts by all individuals – hinders the future of the sport in the country.American activist Shannon Galpin, who works with humanitarian support to Afghan women cyclists for more than a decade andwho, amongst other activities, has obtained sponsorships for the national women cycling team and produced the documentary “Afghan Cycles”, laments the current situation: “these are the first women in this country’s history to ride bikes as a sport and to claim their space in society. Today these young women can no longer identify themselves as cyclists or athletes; otherwise, they become a target of the Taliban regime”.

Barbarian records against the Afghan people are centuries old. History describes the first ideological slaughters against Afghan tribes during the 13th century by Mongol groups guided by Emperor Genghis Khan. “Genghis Khan notoriously left behind pyramids of human heads during his conquests throughout Afghanistan”, describes Afghan anthropologist Amineh Ahmed in an article for the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology. Since then, atrocities against the Afghan people have not ceased.

In modern age, bloody territory disputes passed through the hands of various tribal leaders of different wars, almost always financed by international interest – United Kingdom, Russia (and the Soviet Union), China, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia hold their culpability. The Unites States, last nation to abandon its war in Afghanistan, invaded the country in 2001 in search of Osama Bin Laden – leader of Al Qaeda and hidden by the then-recently created Taliban – soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. For 20 years, and throughout the presidency of four presidents (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden), the US tried to implement democracy in Afghanistan and remove extremist leaders from power. Amidst political disarray and excessive corruption, the democratic regime brought significant behavioural changes, especially for women. The change in the mandatory use of burkas was followed by a series of freedoms, previously banned by Taliban’s Islamic extremism. 

Access to education, art and sports was news for many afghan generations, and the only reality for the more recent ones born during the American occupation. This all ended in a hearbeat. “The dream ended. We regressed 20 years. As a woman, I do not have the right to leave my home, to study or to work. Women today are obligated to stay locked up in their house. Cycling is illegal under the Taliban regime”, said a cyclist that started in the sport in 2018 and was part of the afghan cycling squad. Another cyclist, who professionally joined the sport 2 years ago, said: “cycling had numerous effects in my lifestyle. It improved my body, my soul and my knowledge.” Her biggest dream, until Taliban’s return, was to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics. 

Galpin reports that the women cyclists that were able to escape during the US withdrawal had to leave everything behind and take only a handbag with them. “The ones that stayed were obligated to destroy all their history in the sport”. 


The Afghan women highlighted in the article – and that had their identities preserved for security concerns – as well as all other women cyclists from that country, can benefit from humanitarian support projects, like the one mentioned by activist Shannon Galpin, the Evacuation of Afghan women cyclists.

Afghan cyclists in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, on April 18, 2014. The place was attacked by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. In 2001, the Taliban blew up Buddha statues (Photo: Shannon Galpin)


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