A noble prize for Afghanistan’s female cyclists

A petition signed by 118 Italian Members of Parliament nominating the Afghanistan Cycling Federation’s women’s cycling team for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize has been delivered, by bike, to the Italian embassy in Oslo, Norway.

#bikethenobel Paola Gianotti

IMAGES: Paolo Gianotti, Shannon Galpin

Ambassador Giorgio Novello (also a cyclist) took possession of the oversized nomination for its official handover to the Norwegian Nobel Committee prior to the 01 February deadline. The Committee will now make a short list of all nominees in March ahead of the official announcement in October 2016.

 

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Massimo Cirri and Sara Zambotti, presenters of RAI Radio2 programme Caterpillar, came up with the idea to nominate the bicycle as a “very special candidate” for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize in November 2015 stating, “the bicycle is an instrument of peace. It’s the most democratic means of transportation for all mankind, it does not cause wars and pollution (and) it decreases car accidents.”

Caterpillar officially launched its #bikefornobel campaign on 17 November, and it quickly gathered momentum across Italy’s social and traditional media channels.

Bike the nobel RAI

Though the campaign’s intentions were noble, it lacked a fundamental element necessary for Nobel Peace Prize elgibility:

“Candidates eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize are those persons or organizations nominated by qualified individuals.
– Candidacy Criteria, Nobelprize.org

Enter politician Ermete Realacci, co-leader of the Democratic Party’s green (Ecologisti Democratici) faction who, on 15 January this year, announced via Facebook the addition of the Afghan Cycling Federation’s women’s cycling team as the human dimension of Caterpillar’s Nobel Peace Prize campaign.

“I have embraced (Caterpillar’s) initiative with conviction. Women who ride their bikes in Afghanistan, including those of the Cycling Federation, are in fact starting a ‘gentle’ battle for freedom, rights and peace in a country still torn by war and terrorism. Citing an ancient Afghan proverb, ‘if you’re sitting, others will sit. If you stand, others will stand.’”

Realacci committed to promoting the idea amongst his fellow parliamentarians, noting he had already gained cross-party support amongst many of his peers.

To give the campaign even more wheels, Italian Ultracyclist Paolo Gianotti was to deliver the final petition to the Italian embassy in Oslo by bike. This was not in itself a completely remarkable feat but Gianotti, who holds the Guinness World Record for fastest circumnavigation of the planet by bicycle (female), would start her journey from Milan – a 2’100km bike ride, to be completed in 13 days.

 

CYCLING IN AFGHANISTAN

The mainstream lens through which most outsiders view Afghanistan rarely pans wide enough to capture circumstances of people engaging in common human pleasures like riding a bicycle. Instead, images of despair, terror, violence and destruction that define all conflict zones tend to crowbar apart the idea of cultural commonalities.

If the fact that Afghans often ride bicycles for the same reasons we do comes as a surprise to some, then the knowledge that Afghanistan has a National Cycling Federation might be a revelation – it was founded in 1985. Still, only a rare few women have raced overseas in Regional Games. Cycling as a women in Afghanistan remains highly taboo.

Afghan womens cycling team 3

 

INTERVENTION

In 2006, Shannon Galpin was the owner of Oasis 9600, a ‘high altitude wellness facility’ in Breckenridge, Colorado, and a conditioning specialist for high-profile organisations across Europe. As a self-described humanitarian, activist and avid mountain biker, her American lifestyle and freedoms gnawed at her ideologies. She founded the Mountain2Mountain NGO as a way to begin the reconciliation of beliefs and actions.

Knowing that Afghanistan was amongst the worst-ranked countries for women’s liberties and rights, Galpin decided she would begin her crusade there; she flew to Afghanistan in 2008 in the hope she might discover Afghan women who were riding simply for a love of cycling – as she did herself.

Though the scene of a white, blond-haired, woman on a bicycle was – and remains – a spectacle that is at best a harmless oddity, and at worst an incalculable risk, Galpin scoured Afghanistan’s towns and villages for women, or girls, riding bikes over several years. They never appeared.

Galpin’s luck finally changed in 2012, when the coach of the national men’s cycling team invited her to go on a training ride. It was there that she learned of a highly concealed women’s team. An omen may have come a few days earlier when, for the first time, Galpin sighted a young girl riding to school in Kabul on a bike many sizes too big.

 

MOMENTUM

Word of this underground team spread quickly. The unique story proved magnetic to some individuals and companies. Filmmaker Sarah Menzies was one such individual and it helped that she possessed an adventurous spirit. Menzies linked up with Galpin and travelled to Kabul in 2013 to create content for a short documentary about the women’s team [watch Menzies’ insightful TEDx talk here].

 

[vimeo 137796562 w=750 h=420]

 

Ongoing media attention also proved arresting to women’s bicycle brand Liv. Launched in 2011, the subsidiary of Giant Bicycles made Galpin a global ambassador in August 2014 and subsequently became a sponsor of the ‘Afghan Cycles’ feature documentary that both Menzies and Galpin have been working on ahead of its anticipated release this year. To date, Liv/Giant has supplied 55 bikes for both the women’s and men’s teams.

 

A PRIZED OUTCOME

By all appearances, Realacci’s proposal to include the women’s cycling team of Afghanistan within Italy’s Nobel Peace Prize nomination was entirely spontaneous. If Galpin had any input whatsoever, evidence of her politicking is not easily discovered. However, had she not been both curious and tenacious, there would have been no prospect of Caterpillar’s initial campaign morphing into its present form.

Gianotti’s arrival at the Italian embassy on 27 January marked another small win for Afghanistan’s female cyclists. Regardless of the Nobel Peace Prize outcome, the coverage generated by RAI’s campaign will be invaluable to a cause which began with a tiny group of progressive men and women in Afghanistan working together to break down centuries of conventions so that everyone could one day experience the joys of cycling – regardless of their gender.

The Economist Nobel Peace Prize winners

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