Zhala Sarmast, Malika and Maryam Yousufi are three young girls. They show promise as athlets of the Afghanistan’s Women’s National Cycling team. Little women – more than 40 components to be precise – growing up in Kabul with the dream of taking part in the Tour de France. This is their answer to all those who would hide them under a burqa.
They put their helmets on the hijab four times a week, stacking up the miles on their bycicles for six hours. Sadiq Sadiqi, the coach and president of the Afghan Cycling Federation, has the aim to spread the bycicle culture around the country with these girls.
Zhala, 16 years old, is not only the youngest but also the self-confident of the group. She begings our Skype chat with a fluent English. She can’t wait the questions to begin: «Cycling in Afghanistan today is a big problem. Not educated people constantly bother us. We are trying to make a change». She joined the Afghanistan’s women national cycling team two years ago. A word it’s enough to sum up this experience:«Awesome!». She has her own bike at home. «I don’t feel free to use it everyplace because people bother me. That’s why we have to move in order to train». «I have to say I feel dicriminated when I ride». Why? «Because I’m a woman». The way she found to overcome prejudice is clear and simple: team strenght, «a superc-cool family» and the spirit of competition.
Besides her love for cycling and her struggle to ride a bike freely, Zhala is not different from her western peers. She has the same passions and dreams of a 16-year-old young woman. She plays the guitar and her aspiration is to study medicine. But she already knows that she will move very soon to fulfill her goals: «My sister chose the US and is studying at Harvard University. My plan is to go to Germany, one of my favourite countries, to study. By the way I love my country and I’m hundred percent sure I’ll come back here».
It’s Maryam time, a 18-year-old volcano energy covered up by big glasses and an apparently shy behavior. She’s going to graduate very soon. In the meantime she has a radio program, plays her violin and wants to become a talented journalist. «I love cycling and I feel lucky to practice this sport and travel my country. We feel like heroes. We want to show that things apparently impossible can be done… like heroes» – smiles -. «When I ride my bike I feel brave and free».
Finally it comes Malika’s turn. She is 17 years old and doesn’t speak English. She started to cycle just one year ago in the National Cycling team. Her teammate Zhala is our interpreter. They are in sync with each other. That kind of complicity of those who share the strains of trainings and understand each other immediately. «If I had a daughter I’d like her to become a professional cyclist – Malika says -. I love cycling, both climbing hills and the speed». That’s a point in her favour to achieve her dream to compete in the Tour de France. However, if you ask Malika to choose between the glory of the European Tour and cycling freely in Afghanistan she has no doubt: «the freedom of pedaling in my own country is worth more than any competition».