Until last August, Aqlima was campaigning to get more women into cycling, but since the Taliban’s return, women are unable to participate in sports.
“I no longer can ride my bicycle and wear the clothes I like.”
Image: Members of the Afghanistan Women's Cycling Team in 2014, credit: Mountain2Mountain
Women’s rights in Afghanistan had a long way to go even before the Taliban’s return, but ‘right to ride’ movements – which encouraged women to cycle – were one way in which Afghan women were challenging gender norms through the medium of sport. Bicycles symbolised not only the freedom to cycle, but freedom of movement for women.
Aqlima (not her real name) was a passionate member of a cycling team in Kabul. The group – which included both women and men – would cycle through the city once a week to challenge the “taboo” of women riding bikes, she explains.
“We wanted to normalise cycling for women in the country,” Aqlima tells Afghan Witness (AW). “Every day, our team was getting bigger, more women joined our team, and more women were cycling.”
No sports for women
Shortly after the Taliban takeover last August, the deputy head of the Taliban’s Cultural Commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, indicated that Afghan women and girls will face restrictions in playing sport, stating that women’s sport was considered neither appropriate nor necessary. According to the Taliban official, playing sports such as cricket risks exposing a woman’s face and body, and “Islam does not allow women to be seen like this”. During their first rule in the 1990s, the Taliban banned women from playing all sports.
According to reports, many female athletes have gone into hiding due to fears over their safety, with some professional women cyclists forced to discard their biking equipment or even go to the lengths of burning it. Some athletes have been able to leave the country; members of the national women's football team were evacuated last year by FIFA, and fundraising efforts were swiftly organised to evacuate Afghan cyclists. Some of Aqlima’s teammates are now in neighbouring countries.
Aqlima tells AW that before the takeover, she and a friend shared an image of themselves cycling in a bid to encourage more women to take up the sport. They were contacted by a journalist who interviewed them and wrote an article that went viral online.
“We received both positive and negative responses – still, we didn't care about the negative ones,” says Aqlima. However, she adds that they received threats from a well-known and controversial religious figure, and after the takeover, Aqlima and her teammates became even more concerned for their safety. “Our team members were afraid and asked me what they could do – I had no answers,” Aqlima says hopelessly.
Restricted from work
As a Business Administration graduate, Aqlima used to work at the Kabul Municipality, but after the takeover, she found herself unemployed. In September, Kabul’s interim mayor told female employees in the city’s government to stay home, with work only allowed for those who could not be replaced by men.
“Like millions of other people, I struggled economically, and I was forced to sit at home,” Aqlima says. “However, I did not give up, and for months, I kept sending applications to different places to see if they had a space for a woman like me.”
“The environment has completely changed for millions of people - especially women - in Afghanistan,” says Aqlima. “I no longer can ride my bicycle and wear the clothes I like. Hijab is forced on me – I have to wear it.”
Aqlima says that in her area, there are “many Taliban checkpoints” to monitor hijab implementation and says she can no longer sit in restaurants “for hours” with her friends. A few days before her interview with AW, Aqlima says she went to a restaurant with a close friend but was denied entry: “The restaurant owner told us that they're afraid to let women in, because they don't want [the Taliban to see] that they allowed women to dine in,” she says.
While it’s unclear which rules are being implemented in which provinces – and to what extent, in the western province of Herat, it has been reported that men and women have been restricted from dining together in restaurants. In March, it was also reported that the Taliban had decreed men and women should not visit parks in Kabul on the same days, with women permitted to visit parks only on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and the remaining days reserved for men.
Aqlima adds that during the Persian New Year celebration of Nowruz in March, she and her family visited a park but were denied entry at the gates as Aqlima was not wearing an all-black hijab.
“As a woman, I no longer have the right to at least have some fresh air or go to a park,” she says. “I was lost and did not know what to do and where to go to complain.”
Aqlima says that her mother had an extra black scarf that she was able to wear, but once they were inside, they saw that the park had been segregated: “families were on one side, and men were on the other side,” she explains.
Reports of violence
Taliban violence against individuals has also been widely documented and reported, and AW has verified footage of multiple incidents. Aqlima says she too has witnessed – and experienced – such violence. She alleges that she saw a man heavily beaten at the passport office in Kabul.
Another time, she says she went to the National Registry Office with her mother, and, because there was no space to sit down, joined a queue predominantly made up of men.
“Suddenly, a Taliban guard appeared and struck me with a stick,” Aqlima recalls. “For days, the bruise was visible. I believe the Taliban are committing human rights violations as part of their daily routine.”
Aqlima says she grew “tired of hiding” and decided to speak out. “It led me to join a group of strong women to protest against the restrictions imposed by the Taliban,” she explains. However, she says after the Taliban began detaining some protesters – something that has been widely reported by rights groups and news outlets – she stopped participating due to the risks to her and her family. “We even changed our addresses multiple times,” Aqlima adds.
Aqlima believes the “situation is getting worse” and that unemployment and poverty is taking its toll mentally.
“People who were employed [before the takeover] – especially women currently sitting at home – are faced with depression… perhaps they will commit suicide,” she says. “It's difficult to stay at home when you are educated, young and ambitious.”
It's the simple things that she misses, explains Aqlima with tears in her eyes: “Over the past ten months, I miss riding my bicycle, my studies, my work, and my friends.”
“My life at the moment is wasted,” she adds. “Sometimes, I think about who I was, what I wanted to be – an independent woman who would bring positive changes to society and other women's lives.”
Despite the restrictions against women, and the ambitions that have been pushed aside, Aqlima remains determined to keep going: “For people reading my words now… never be silent, raise your voice – I believe dying with dignity and freedom is far better than life in humiliation and misery.”
Interview by Afghan Witness