When Fatima Haidari got her first bike at age 9, she rode it all the time. But when she became an teenager, the rules changed.
"I used to bike outside because I was a kid, and nobody cared," Haidari says. "But when I got older, it got kind of weird so I stopped."
By "weird," she means people aren't used to seeing a young woman outside, by herself, on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. It's even more uncommon to see women out on the streets on wheels. Haidari says she would have attracted unwanted attention from passersby — disapproving stares and even taunts.
In the 1990s, the Taliban imposed many restrictions on women's rights. They couldn't go to school, walk on the streets alone or speak publicly.
Since the militant group was ousted from parts of the country in 2001, the Afghan government has been working with advocacy groups to improve women's rights. But progress has been slow. And some people still believe that women belong inside the house.
Haidari, now 18, decided to challenge that thinking.
While studying in the U.S. last spring, she met representatives from Girl Up, a group from the U.N. Foundation that advocates for young girls around the world. They have a network of clubs run by girls in different countries. But Haidari noticed that Afghanistan didn't have one.
So she thought, why not?
With support from Girl Up, Haidari returned to Kabul and created a bike-riding club just for girls. She and her friends met weekly, sometimes to watch and discuss movies starring women, like Gravity. Every Friday, they went biking around the city.
The club got an extra boost after the girls impressed Shannon Galpin, the first woman known to mountain bike in Afghanistan. Her nonprofit Moutain 2 Mountain, which advocates for women in conflict zones, donated 10 bikes to club members. For each of the girls, it was her first bike. Before then, they had to borrow from a male friend or relative.
"It's really new for our society to see women outside their house because we usually think women are supposed to be home to raise the children or take care of the husband," Haidari says. "We're trying to push women to have equal presence in society, and biking is just part of it."
This spring Haidari has been studying at St. Timothy's School, a boarding school for girls in Baltimore, Md. And she has put the club in the hands of a good friend while she's away. The club is still going strong, she says. It started out with just five girls. Now, more than 20 get together each week to go cycling.
After a brief introduction from Girl Up, we caught up with Haidari as she was preparing for her finals. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you focus on bike riding?
It's kind of cliche, but it's really important for a woman to be able to get somewhere without a male's help.
There are so many girls in Afghanistan who can't afford to drive to school so they walk for hours. But they can use a bicycle. First, it's not that expensive, and second it's a kind of sport. There aren't many opportunities for women to exercise. So biking serves multiple purposes. I don't know who said this, but I think women on wheels is the start of women's independence.
What were some obstacles in starting the club?
There were so many girls who wanted to come riding with us. They would be super passionate, but their families wouldn't let them come. I understand where they're coming from — they were scared for their daughter's security. So we started with five girls. When the other girls saw that nothing [bad] really happened, and that it was successful, I think that convinced the other girls' families.
Were you nervous about the first bike ride?
We never felt that our lives were in danger, but we weren't sure what the reaction was going to be. One of my friends said that we should call a cop to watch over us, but we wanted to send a message that girls have the freedom to go outside and bike. And having that cop next to us would have totally ruined that message.
Did anyone try to get in the way?
There was an instance when this guy tried to stop one of my friends and made her fall from her bike.
It was right in front of the Ministry of Education, where there were guards. And they didn't do anything!
The Ministry of Education is supposed to inform people about human rights and that women should use their freedom. But the guards were just staring. It was really ironic that there was nobody to protect us — or at least to call the person out.
When things like that happen, what inspires you to keep going?
I had a friend who didn't know anything about biking. She had never rode a bike, and she wanted to join. I told her the bike ride is tomorrow, and she was like, "Well I'm going to learn tonight." So she learned it overnight, and she came and joined us the next day. It was really inspiring to see that much dedication.
I don't know how to drive, but I want to learn this summer. On the streets in Afghanistan, you see mostly men behind the wheel. When I came to the U.S., it was the first culture shock I got: There were so many women behind the wheel. They all knew how to drive! I was like, "That is absolutely something I should know. I should know how to get somewhere by myself."