In 2009 in the heart of the rugged Panjshir range, Coloradan Shannon Galpin maneuvered her Niner single-speed mountain bike down a rock-strewn mountain shoulder, becoming the first documented woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan.
It was small symbolic act through a rubbly line, but it fanned a passion in Galpin to fight gender violence, oppression and inequality in the tumultuous country. Over the next several years, Galpin, founder of the nonprofit organization Mountain2Mountain, would leave behind much of her former life to become a humanitarian, aid worker and champion for women’s issues – including cycling – in Afghanistan.
Six years and 19 trips to Afghanistan later, Galpin says she has found incredible inspiration in the women she has met in the country, including members of Afghanistan’s first national women’s cycling team, who have become the focus of her nonprofit work.
“They are the most courageous women that I’ve ever met,” Galpin said. “They are representing the potential future of Afghanistan. These six young women have literally shown the world what Afghan women are capable of.”
Galpin – whose memoir, Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan, was released in September – is coming to Durango for an author event on Thursday. She will talk about her experiences in Afghanistan, community-rebuilding efforts and her own, sometimes uncertain, path to becoming a humanitarian.
The book traces that path, which began with a trip to the country in 2008. Galpin, a victim of sexual violence herself and mother of a young girl, was motivated both by a desire to explore the country that has been repeatedly ranked as the worst place to be a woman and by a conviction that all women deserve the same opportunities as her daughter.
She ended up deeply involved in the country, selling her house, leaving her career as an athletic trainer and ultimately committing her life to working for women’s rights. She returned to Afghanistan again and again to visit women’s prisons, deliver computers for girls education programs, organize cultural events like the “Streets of Afghanistan” art exhibit and work on projects to empower Afghan women.
Along the way, she broke a few barriers herself – becoming the first person to bike across the country’s Panjshir Valley in 2010 – and created offshoots of her nonprofit, Mountain2Mountain, such as Combat Apathy and Strength in Numbers. The experience also helped her work through her own trauma as a rape victim and solidified a belief in giving voice to victims of all kinds.
Through mountain biking, she made connections in the cycling world that led her to a fateful meeting with the coach of the Afghanistan’s men’s cycling team. It was through that meeting that she discovered, much to her surprise, that a fledgling women’s cycling team had started up.
“I was completely shocked, and immediately said, ‘What can I do to help?’” she said.
Supporting and working with the cycling team has since become the focus of Galpin’s work. What began as an effort to get the team basic equipment, like helmets and bikes, evolved into Galpin training and coaching the cyclists and raising money to send them to races outside of the country. Galpin is also the producer of a documentary film, “Afghan Cycles,” about the team that is expected to premiere in early 2016.
One goal is to get them the support they need to attempt to make it to the 2020 Olympics, Galpin said. But in a country where riding a bike has long been considered a major taboo for women, the act of pedaling alone is huge.
“Whether or not they ever win a race, that really doesn’t matter,” Galpin said. “It’s not just about cycling; it’s about what does the bike offer in terms of empowerment. I think that they serve as a symbol or inspiration for the rest of the world. These girls are literally on the front line of creating change.”
While access to cycling may not appear as imperative as basic needs such as health care and shelter, Galpin said it’s an important symbol of freedom that can prove crucial in social change.
“(Women) deserve the same access to sports and art and the things that bind community together and create joy and hope,” she said. “Those things are just as important as those basic parts of survival. You can’t rebuild community if there isn’t happiness.”
Galpin hopes to take the model of the Afghan women’s cycling team to other countries – including inner city areas of the United States – as a way to empower women to be at the forefront of change in their own communities.
And she hopes her book inspires people to take action and do their part.
“Every person has the ability to take action, but more importantly, I think, every person has the responsibility to take action,” she said.