Ad­vo­cate for bi­cy­cling takes the bumps in stride

De­spite ob­jec­tions from the mul­lahs, one young woman turns her love of wheels into a trend in a pro­vin­cial town

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - Lat­ifi is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. with Ali M. Lat­ifi

When she first started rid­ing her Chi­ne­se­made bi­cy­cle through the streets of this cen­tral Afghan town three years ago, uni­ver­sity stu­dent Zahra Hus­saini was so care­ful to not draw at­ten­tion to her­self that she donned men’s ath­letic clothes.

She had been rid­ing bi­cy­cles for years but al­ways kept a low pro­file. Born a refugee in neigh­bor­ing Iran, Hus­saini found cover in her youth when she bi­cy­cled in the Is­lamic Repub­lic. When she moved to the west­ern Afghan prov­ince of Herat, she trav­eled only short dis­tances to the homes of friends and fam­ily.

Bamian, a mostly peace­ful, moun­tain­ous prov­ince west of the cap­i­tal, Kabul, had no his­tory of women driv­ing cars or rid­ing bikes. One win­ter morn­ing in 2012, rid­ing along an icy road, she had her first bout with fear.

“The road was slip­pery and I crashed my bike into an old man stand­ing on the street,” Hus­saini said.

Not re­al­iz­ing the rider was a young woman, the man said, “If you don’t know how to ride, then don’t bother.”

Hav­ing just started rid­ing her bi­cy­cle in Bamian, she mo­men­tar­ily con­sid­ered re­spond­ing, but stopped her­self. He could have been a con­ser­va­tive el­der, she thought, and in Bamian even few men rode bikes. Bet­ter to let him think he had shamed a young man, she thought, than risk a dress­ing-down be­cause of her gen­der. She hopped on her bike and rode off.

As time went on, Hus­saini be­came more com­fort­able and be­gan to dress as her­self. At times, peo­ple would sneer. Oth­ers laughed, pointed or said con­de­scend­ingly, “Look at that girl.” Hus­saini said it was noth­ing she couldn’t han­dle.

“No one ever out­right in­sulted me, and I just brushed their words off,” she said.

::

When she taught her­self to ride in Iran, it was out of a fas­ci­na­tion with bi­cy­cles and a de­sire to do what the boys did. In Bamian, how­ever, rid­ing a bi­cy­cle was a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity.

The town has few taxis and women and girls are forced to walk al­most ev­ery­where. At Bamian Uni­ver­sity, a ma­jor in­sti­tu­tion in cen­tral Afghanistan, fe­male stu­dents such as Hus­saini, 23, face ad­di­tional prob­lems be­cause their dorms are sev­eral miles from cam­pus.

In Au­gust, five young women she trained made Afghanistan’s na­tional cy­cling team. An Afghan Canadian woman who had never rid­den a bike learned to ride for leisure un­der Hus­saini’s tute­lage.

Even­tu­ally, men be­gan to ap­proach her for lessons too.

Among them was an of­fi­cial at her uni­ver­sity who had pur­chased bi­cy­cles for him­self, his wife and daugh­ter. Hus­saini, who is in the fi­nal year of earn­ing an ar­chae­ol­ogy de­gree, told the man’s wife that she wouldn’t teach her un­til she had se­cured her hus­band’s per­mis­sion.

“Imag­ine if he got mad and it af­fected my aca­demic record,” she said.

A few days later, the of­fi­cial showed up at her house with his wife and daugh­ter, each with a bike by their side.

When she landed a job as an aide to for­mer pro­vin­cial Gov. Habiba Sarabi, she rode her bike to work with the sup­port of her boss and Sima Sa­mar, the head of the Afghan In­de­pen­dent Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion. The two women, among Afghanistan’s most re­spected fe­male lead­ers, have come to see her as a daugh­ter.

But she has also faced crit­i­cism. Last year dur­ing Muhar­ram, the first month of the Is­lamic cal­en­dar, lo­cal re­li­gious lead­ers told the large crowds at mosques that fe­males should not ride bi­cy­cles.

With­out nam­ing her di­rectly, they crit­i­cized the trend she started and falsely ac­cused for­eign aid agen­cies of fund­ing an “in­fi­del prac­tice,” she said.

What both­ered Hus­saini the most was that none of the mul­lahs ever ad­dressed her face-to-face.

“They knew I was ac­tive in civil so­ci­ety groups here so they didn’t want to risk protests by tar­get­ing us di­rectly,” she said.

::

Hus­saini dubbed the bi­cy­cling cam­paign “Ran­dan Haq-e-mast,” which means “Bik­ing is our right.” Two women she trained placed first and sec­ond in pro­vin­cial cy­cling com­pe­ti­tions last year.

As more Bami­ani men and women be­gan to take up cy­cling, Hus­saini said, some re­li­gious lead­ers qui­eted their op­po­si­tion.

“None re­ally ever came out in sup­port,” she said, “but they did stop bring­ing it up.”

She has com­bined her love of the sport with her pas­sion for Bamian’s his­toric sites, some of the most no­table in Afghanistan.

Last sum­mer she helped or­ga­nize the Tour De Bamian, a 22-mile ride that took cy­clists past the site of 6th cen­tury Bud­dha stat­ues de­stroyed by Tal­iban mil­i­tants in 2001, the an­cient citadel city of Ghol­ghola and other land­marks. The com­pe­ti­tion drew 100 rid­ers, in­clud­ing nine women.

Lately, she has be­gun work­ing with lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies to bring paraglid­ing to the prov­ince, al­low­ing vis­i­tors to hover above the site of the Bud­dhas and the crys­tal blue lakes of Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s first na­tional park, with­out cre­at­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal haz­ards.

Though many in the prov­ince see her as a pi­o­neer, Hus­saini said she never sought the at­ten­tion.

“Bike rid­ing is good for the en­vi­ron­ment and health,” she said. “I, of course, want more women ev­ery­where to join in.”

Ali M. Lat­ifi For The Times

UN­LIKE three years ago, uni­ver­sity stu­dent Zahra Hus­saini no longer has to keep a low pro­file when rid­ing through the streets of Bamian, Afghanistan.

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