Asia

Afghanistan's women's cyclists: The world's most unlikely sports team?

Women's cycling team in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2015.
Image caption The women's cycling team trains three times a week on the outskirts of Kabul

Perhaps the world's most unlikely sporting team, Afghanistan's women cyclists train three times a week on unused roads on a plain north of the capital, Kabul.

They set out, carrying their cycles past open sewers, from a private house with a water pump in the yard, in a mud-built back lane of the city, owned by Afghanistan's only professional cyclist, Abdul Sadiq.

He began by training his daughter. And when she competed successfully abroad, he set up the team.

His deputy Mariam Marjan goes around schools seeking girls who might want to compete.

Even today, after years of progress since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she faces formidable obstacles in finding new recruits.

It is not for lack of enthusiasm on the part of the girls.

But the sport breaks taboos in a country where in many traditional communities, women are not allowed out of the house without a male member of their family as an escort.

Image caption Deputy head coach Mariam Marjan is always looking for new recruits in Kabul
Image caption But there are many obstacles for women who want to compete
Image caption The head coach faces frequent threats and the girls' families do not always approve

Afghan families are large networks. "If it's not their father trying to stop them, it's a brother or uncle," Ms Marjan said. "There is always somebody they have to convince."

Two members of the team, Massouma, 18, and Zarab, 17, are sisters.

Their father and their brothers approve, but Zarab says they know that their uncles complain to their father.

"They will never come in front of us to say why are you cycling, but they say bad words to our father," she said.

The head coach, Abdul Sadiq, has faced frequent threats and was recently beaten up.

But watching the girls load their bikes onto the top of his four-wheel drive vehicle for another day of training, male neighbours on the street all said that they approved.

Evangelical zeal

The bikes are a long way from the precision-built kit used by the top international teams, and Mr Sadiq knows that he is a long way from top rung competition.

His team have, however, competed and won regionally against Bangladesh and Pakistan.

His biggest problem is retaining trained athletes in a country where many people are married at 20 and then drop out of the team.

But there are always new recruits, who come out when the team train, wobbling as they learn to ride from scratch.

Image caption A big problem is keeping trained athletes on the team after they get married
Image caption But despite the difficulties, the team has won regionally against Pakistan and Bangladesh

"We want to go cycling because we want to be heroes one day," said 16-year-old Jella, one of the latest recruits.

In one of the mildest and driest winters for many years, training has gone on without interruption. And in the spring, the girls will go up into the mountains.

They do the sport with an evangelical zeal.

"We say that women should not sit at home, they need to come out and do sport," said Ms Marjan, the deputy head coach.

And 18-year-old Zainab said she wished that she could just go cycling alone on the street without being harassed.

"It's my ambition, and I hope that one day girls will be allowed to go cycling on the streets, without a coach, or anyone with them, and they will not have problems," she said.

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