Bikes are everywhere in Kabul since the Taliban takeover. But who's not cycling? Women
KABUL, Afghanistan – Since the Taliban seized power a year ago, countless things have changed in the Afghan capital — including Ahmad Fahim's commute to work. The 25-year-old radiologist used to take a taxi every day. Now he makes the trip on a bicycle.
"Everyone is getting a bike," Fahim says during a pause on his route home as bikes weave between honking cars on a Kabul thoroughfare.
Afghans aren't riding bikes to cut down on their carbon emissions, which are barely a global blip. They aren't on a health kick. It is a reflection of how badly the country's economy has unraveled. Even Afghans fortunate enough to be working are now often unable to afford a comfort once taken largely for granted: a ride in a bus or a shared cab. (Private cars have long been prohibitively expensive for most Afghans.)
So new traffic patterns are emerging from Kabul's grinding gridlock, with cars, trucks and motorbikes forced to make way for an influx of cyclists. On a recent day on a main street, a man whizzed between cars with official-looking files in his basket. Another had a giant bag of apples strapped to his bike's back rack. One man ferried his young daughter, who sat neatly sidesaddle on the rack, her legs dangling over the wheel.
Bike repair shops are popping up
There's no data available on how many Kabul commuters used bikes before the Taliban takeover and how many ride them now. But bike repair shops and even sidewalk booths for quick repairs have mushroomed through Kabul. One bike repair shop owner bemoaned that three similar shops had recently opened in his neighborhood. Despite the competition, business is booming.
Business is also evolving. "I used to sell bikes for kids and for teenagers," says Tawfik Shirzad, a 25-year-old who runs his family's bike store. Under the Taliban, most of his customers these days are adult men. "It's so busy. But it makes me sad," he says. "When people buy a bike from me right now, it means their livelihood is in trouble. I can't be happy."
Shirzad's shop has rows of gleaming new bikes. Green, blue and red bells dangle from a ceiling hook. But his customers mostly want just one thing. He gestures to a row of secondhand bikes. A bit battered, a bit dusty, they range in price from $5 to $20. "Nobody can afford a new bike now," Shirzad shrugs.
That includes Fahim, the radiologist, whose boss slashed his salary to $90 a month due to a lack of paying patients. Without the aid that Western governments used to send to prop up previous governments, the Afghan economy faltered. Sanctions on Taliban leaders caused banking and trade to seize up. Then the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent fuel prices soaring in Kabul – Fahim's daily taxi fare cost 80 cents one day, far more than he could afford.
So six months ago, he paid $40 for a sporty-looking Chinese made, secondhand bike. And he's been happily cycling ever since. "It gets me through Taliban checkpoints," he says, since motorized vehicles typically have to stop, idle and wait to be searched. Plus, he says: "I don't have to stall in traffic and it saves me money."
Those rising gas prices ended Abdul Matin Amani's career as a taxi driver. The 40-year-old with seven children found he could no longer afford to drive around the city hustling for customers. "My sweet brother," he says to an NPR reporter, "the fuel got expensive and it destroyed my work," he says. Instead, he recently opened a bike repair shop in the Taliban-loyal Kabul suburb of Kompany.
He says he learned to fix bikes in the mid-1990s when the Taliban first seized power in Kabul, ending a bruising civil war. In those days, he recalls, most Afghans got around on bikes — because then, like now, the economy was in tatters.
But following the toppling of the Taliban after 9/11, Western money poured into Afghanistan. Most men who could afford to ditched their bikes.
Women cyclists now feel they can't pedal in public
Also during that time, there was a small but growing movement of women and girls who started riding bikes. Many did it to challenge a conservative culture that sees female cyclists as shameful – because the shape of a woman's bottom can be perceived and so can the shape of her legs as she pedals.
"Over the last decade, we saw women start to take up space in the streets of Afghanistan," says Shanon Galpin, an artist and activist who began promoting biking among Afghan women in 2008. "Once it started, it was like popcorn. It just took off." Afghan women formed cycling teams. They mountain biked. There was a days-long biking race open to men and women in the relatively liberal province of Bamiyan.
All of that ended when the Taliban seized power last year. Galpin helped dozens of female Afghan cyclists flee the country.
The Taliban haven't forbidden women from riding bikes – they don't have to. They've told women to cover up and stay home. They've ordered them to have a male guardian when they leave the house. And that old conservative culture that sees a woman biking as shameful is back.
So the sight of all those men on bikes in the streets is depressing for former female cyclists. "When you see men can do that and you can't do that, it feels like injustice," says Lama, a 19-year-old who requests we do not use her full name because she is currently seeking asylum in the U.S.
Before the Taliban takeover, she loved riding around her Kabul suburb, especially in the rain. "Riding the bike in that raining it filled me happy," she says in broken English. "It was like a different world."
Now the bikes she sees are just a hurtful reminder of all she cannot do in the Taliban's Afghanistan — and her country's economic ruin. [Copyright 2022 NPR]