She’s starting a revolution.
Shannon Galpin is the founder of Mountain2Mountain – a non-profit working across the globe to create a voice and empower women and girls in conflict zones.
Her mission is to minimize Afghanistan’s gender divide and change perceptions through sport, art, music, and sport.
With the Afghan culture strongly against women riding bicycles and her own passion for mountain biking, Shannon knew it was the perfect tool to ignite change.
In 2009, Shannon became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan and in 2010 the first person to ride across Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley encouraging local women to follow suit.
Shannon was recognized as National Geographic’s 2013 Adventurers of the Year and shows no signs of stopping.
Learn more about Shannon and how she’s changing Afghanistan taboos in this interview…
Interview with Shannon Galpin
Why did you focus your efforts in Afghanistan?
I originally started in Afghanistan because it was repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. It was a country where women often didn’t’ have a voice, and I wanted to change that.
Why are women not allowed to ride bikes in Afghanistan?
Its an interesting taboo. Its not illegal, its simply a deep rooted cultural taboo.
For many years under Taliban times, all sports were taboo, but something about the bicycle has always been off-limits for women. S
everal reasons have emerged, from believing that straddling a seat is offensive (which is why you see women on motorcycles, horses, and bikes sitting behind their men sidesaddle) to seeing the bicycling as a mode of transportation and therefore, freedom.
It was much the same in the US in the late 1800’s at the turn of the century ironically. Women that rode bikes were considered immoral and promiscuous.
Where do you you see the women’s bike movement being in Afghanistan in five years?
If security can stabilize it is a sport that could continue to grow and develop.
Time will allow more women and girls to start riding bikes at an earlier age, which makes the sport more acceptable as well as creating more depth for the teams to develop from.
Security and time also gives individuals and cycling federations the ability to get involved with team development and coaching, two of the biggest needs right now for this grassroots team. They could be competitive at a regional level and show the world a different view of Afghanistan’s women.
How can women help, volunteer or donate to your non-profits?
Donation is key right now as we work to raise the funds to rent the team a mini bus to help alleviate the security issues and logistics that make it difficult for the team to train regularly and all together.
Donations can be made on our website at www.mountain2mountain.org/donation. All donations are tax exempt of course as we are a registered US non profit.
In addition, volunteers for upcoming events are always welcomed, and we are trying to find more ways to plug in women that want to help, but that has proved the most difficult aspect due to the nature of the work I do, and the fact that its really just a one woman show.
The irony is that of course as one woman, I need help, but the work to rally and organize volunteers is a full time job separate from the many balls I’m juggling already.
What have you learned from the women you’ve worked with and helped?
That they don’t see themselves as revolutionary change makers. They are just young women that are growing up in the post Taliban time of growth and increased freedoms that are experimenting with all the opportunities they are presented with.
They ride their bikes because it improves their health, because its fun, because its a hobby.
Not to break barriers, although they most definitely ARE breaking barriers. Its refreshing to see young women doing what they want to do simply because they want to do it, just like young women try new sports in the West.
What was the most memorable moment in Afghanistan?
My most memorable moment in Afghanistan was not one on the bike, although my favorite moments in Afghanistan are almost all related to the bike.
I was in the Kandahar women’s prison a few years ago, and a woman there gave me her silver barrette. I had been in so many prisons around Afghanistan and this one was different because of the access and time allowed by the commander. I got to spend so much more time, one on one with the women just listening to their stories.
When it was dark, I starting saying goodbye and one of the women handed me the barrette, and when I tried to refuse, turned me around and took out my ponytail and replaced the band with the barrette.
That barrette is with me on every trip, and every adventure.
What are some common misconceptions about Afghanistan?
That its nothing but a war zone that negates the ability for personal connection, to travel without guns, or to even believe that change is possible. I’m safer than most people think when I travel there, the interactions I have with Afghans prove over and over that we are more similar than we are different. We want the same things for our families and for our communities.
Its also important to recognize that Afghans have taken the last 10 years in the post Taliban times to make huge strides beyond what is reported in the media. Entrepreneurs have flourished, the tech industry is growing, there is an apple store in Kabul now.
Women’s rights and activism are breaking barriers.
Security is a real issue as it continues to decline, but set against the backdrop of the instability, is real growth, real gains in women’s rights and girls education, and time and security is what is needed to allow that to continue.
What was the greatest lesson you’ve learned in recent years?
Patience. You have to allow things to unfold in their own time. Everytime I’ve tried to force something through, its met with an equal opposing force. When I let go, things just get into their flow and amazing progress emerges.
What challenges have you faced being a woman traveler?
I haven’t ever thought about travel challenges by being a woman being any different than a man when traveling.
Of course security, especially when traveling solo which I often do, is an issue to be considered, but its not a deterrent, just something to be considered and aware of.
I guess that in Afghanistan, I am aware of the fine lines I walk, and sometimes cross, by being a foreign woman and pushing on the gender barriers. Beyond that, I simply believe in following your gut instincts, and honing your radar, so that the more aware you are, the more relaxed you can be.
What advice or tips can you give women considering visiting Afghanistan?
- Dive into the culture first and understand the role of women in Afghanistan today, and that its radically diverse from rural to urban areas.
- Get a really excellent fixer/translator to introduce you to the country, its culture, its language, and allow you to delve deeper into the country than what you see on the surface.
- Be aware of security reports, and that the situation changes daily, have good advice on the ground, as security has been been deteriorating over the past couple of years unfortunately.
What advice would you give women to be happier, resilient, and empowered?
Follow your heart, follow your instincts, and then dive in. Immerse yourself in travel and adventure and new experiences. Be open to plans changing, be comfortable being out of your element, and be willing to make friends and share yourself with those you meet. Growth doesn’t come by playing it safe.