KABUL (Reuters) - Malika Yousufi lined her bike up alongside her teammates on a lonely road outside the Afghan capital, getting ready for her weekly training ride away from the disapproving stares of Kabul.
Yousufi is part of Afghanistan’s Women’s National Cycling Team, a group that has been breaking new ground for women’s sports in Afghanistan and pushing the boundaries of what is - and is not - acceptable for young women in the conservative Muslim country.
Under the Taliban in the 1990s, women in Afghanistan were excluded from public life, banned from going to school or stepping outside their home without a male family member.
Women’s rights have made gains since the hardline Islamist group’s ouster in 2001, but observers worry that progress is at risk as violence against women persists and women remain under-represented in politics.
“We are resolved to keep our commitments to women and we will protect and reinforce our achievements,” President Ashraf Ghani’s office said in a statement released after the president made a speech ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.
While Afghanistan’s national men’s cricket and soccer teams have enjoyed the spotlight, women’s sports have made more halting progress, with athletes facing family pressure and patchy public support.
Last year, the women’s cricket team was quietly dissolved amid Taliban threats and a shortage of players.
The women’s cycling team is pushing ahead, despite not having been paid for several months, a problem for many Afghan athletes.
To clock the distances needed for training, team members pile their bikes in cars and drive outside the capital, where their uniform of loose-fitting tops and long pants won’t draw stares.
During the ride, the coach leads the pack in a car.
“The coach is like a shield for us,” Yousufi said. “If he wasn’t there, we couldn’t ride.”
Even so, drivers sometimes shout profanities at the riders, and their team captain grapples with a back injury from a crash after a man on a motorbike reached out to grab her.
Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi, the coach and president of the Afghan Cycling Federation, is not overly concerned.
“These are people who don’t let their children go to school,” Sadiqi said.
More than 40 women train with the group, and the core team has competed in several international competitions.
On a recent morning, team members leaned into the curves in the road, whizzing past a checkpoint where a group of soldiers watched them pass.
Yousufi said she was determined to become the first Afghan woman to compete in the Tour de France, a cycling race dominated by men since its first event in 1903.
“Nothing will stop us,” she said.
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Robert Birsel