‘It’s freedom’: Breckenridge’s Shannon Galpin shares behind-the-scenes story that became ‘Afghan Cycles’ film (podcast)

Ten years and 25 trips after her first visit to Afghanistan almost exactly a decade ago, Breckenridge resident Shannon Galpin is ready to showcase her life’s work to Summit County.

“Afghan Cycles,” which Galpin produced, will screen at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Breckenridge Film Festival at Colorado Mountain College. It’s a project Galpin championed since the idea was conceived over coffee and lunch at Park and Main in Breckenridge six years ago with director Sarah Menzies and other women integral to the film. It tells the story of the Afghan women’s national cycling team in Kabul, which Galpin helped band together.

For 89 minutes, the crowd at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge will be transported from their gold-tinged hillsides at 9,600 feet to dusty, desert streets and dirt roads in one of the most conflict-riddled areas in the world.

It’s there, in the rural hillsides beyond the tarmacs smelling of gasoline and lined with military aircraft, where Galpin set out to improve the plight of Afghan women back in October 2008. She’d do so, she soon realized, by believing in the power of the bicycle as a vehicle for progress toward gender equality in the war-ravaged country.

In a place like Afghanistan, in a time like the 21st century, what did a bicycle mean for a women or girl?

“It’s freedom,” Galpin said. “You are giving a girl freedom of transportation, in a culture that controls movement and values honor above all else. So, if you don’t know where a girl is going and who with, that questions honor, and that puts a dark mark on her honor to a point where she might not be marriageable. And so, in this culture if your daughter is not marriageable, she has no worth. She’s chattel.”

LISTEN: In this unabridged podcast conversation, Breckenridge’s Shannon Galpin shares all of the minute details of her time in Afghanistan, during which she brought a culture of cycling to the country to improve the individual freedoms of the Afghan women she encountered.

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Part 3

To Galpin, the cultural norm in Afghanistan of forbidding women to ride bikes was a “double-insult,” as she put it. For one, it prevented young girls from having the kind of empowering childhood rite-of-passage Americans are so familiar with. Beyond that, though, the Afghan perspective equated women riding bikes with being promiscuous or profane.

“It’s culturally obscene for a girl to straddle a bike seat,” Galpin said. “There is the belief that riding a bicycle will take a girls virginity away. And when you think about that, it sounds so bizarre. But really, when you think about it, it’s the idea a girl’s hymen could break.”

In her attempt to counter this belief, Galpin rode her bicycle and motorcycle around the Afghan countryside, with she and her translator stopping along the way to chat with Afghan men and women about their reactions.

With her on this journey, Galpin carried the knowledge and wisdom about women’s rights in Afghanistan that she previously gleaned from her earlier work throughout the country as a humanitarian and activist.

Beginning in autumn of 2008, Galpin’s goal was to meet a myriad of Afghan people. She wanted to meet the teachers. She wanted to meet the women in prison. She wanted to meet females running for elected office. She wanted to meet beggars and heroin addicts in the streets. She wanted an overarching idea of the many different groups of people in this conflict-ravaged land.

What she found was, as she put it, was that Afghanistan “is shades of grey.”

“There is no black and white,” Galpin said. “Your hero is also the villain. And that constantly rings true, that someone who is my ally is also the person who is often working against me. So it’s about building a network of people that you trust.”

Then circa 2012, after a chance meeting with the man who founded the Afghan Men’s National Cycling Team, Galpin turned her work toward cycling. Over those previous four-plus years in Afghanistan, Galpin learned Afghan men viewed her as what she described as an “honorary man.” Despite donning the customary headscarf and cultural garb, Galpin’s fair-skinned, tall and blonde features to the locals amounted to, as she put it, a “third gender.”

“The men treat me as an equal, but because I am a woman,” Galpin said, “I have full, unedited access to the women. So I’m in a very unique situation in Afghanistan to get information that often has, if you were a man, you would get a very different set of information. The women often wouldn’t give you the full, unedited truth. Because they would be worried what you would take to the other men. You wouldn’t be trusted.”

Building trust with the Afghan people, particularly the families of the women who’d soon train with her as members of the national team, was paramount to Galpin’s and the film crew’s mission.

On her first bike rides around the country, the main question Galpin stressed to the locals was to ask: “Is this offensive to you? Would this be OK?”

Those very first rides were met with curiosity and humor. They became an icebreaker to the kind of authentic, open conversations by the side of the road with Afghan men that Galpin was hoping for. Invitations for tea would follow. And, at the height of the curiosity, Galpin would ask the most important question.

“Would you allow any women in your family to ride a bicycle?

“And it was always no. Absolutely not,” Galpin said. “…I never met a girl riding a bike no matter where I was for five years.”

Working with the men’s national cycling team coach, his assistant — and women’s national team member — Miriam, the effort to spread cycling began with just six girls. Over the ensuing four-plus years documented in the film, the team grew in line with the women’s cycling movement across the country, Galpin and other filmmakers travelling to other regions to connect with girls cycling startups.

With the advent of Internet technology and social media entering Afghanistan at the same time of this work, Galpin believes the “Afghan Cycles” film is at an interesting confluence between individual self-empowerment and fear of the spread of archaic regional power entities such as the Taliban. It’s those realities that resulted in one of the main characters and cyclists in the movie, Frozan, deciding to flee to France for a better life.

With that side of the story, though, there is also the inspiring, pioneering reality of what these women did and, perhaps more importantly, what it meant to the other women in their lives who never had this chance.

One of those women was Frozan’s mother. Out on one training ride with other members of the team on early morning, from her central location in an Afghan city, Galpin noticed Frozan riding slower than usual. She then noticed a woman beside her, in all black, head covered, bundled-up, wearing plastic sandals, sprinting as fast as she could.

“Her mom was out there because she had always wanted to ride a bicycle and was so proud Frozan had learned to ride.”

The mother wanted to meet the whole team, so the coaches put her in the sag-wagon to watch the team ride.

It’s scenes like this one that answered Galpin’s question as to why each of these women continued to dive deeper into the sport even though they knew that many countrymen were against them.

“Every single one of them says, ‘Because I feel free,’” Galpin said. “‘Because when I ride a bike, I’m outside of myself and completely free. Nothing makes me happier than riding a bicycle, and I shouldn’t have to give that up.”

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