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Afghan women express their freedom by cycling

PAGHMAN, Afghanistan -- Trundling down dun-colored mountain slopes, they ignore hard stares and vulgarities from passing men, reveling in an activity that seemed unthinkable for previous generations of Afghan women — riding a bicycle.

The sight of a woman on a bicycle may not be unusual in most parts of the world, but it is a striking anomaly in Afghanistan where strict Islamic mores deem the sport unbecoming for women.

The country's 10-member national women's cycling team is challenging those gender stereotypes, often at great personal risk, training their eyes not just on the 2020 Olympics but a goal even more ambitious — to get more Afghan women on bikes.

“For us, the bicycle is a symbol of freedom,” said Marjan Sidiqqi, 26, a team member who is also the assistant coach.

“We are not riding bikes to make a political statement. We're riding because we want to, because we love to, because if our brothers can, so can we.”

One crisp morning, dressed in tracksuit bottoms, jerseys and helmets, Marjan and half a dozen team members, all aged between 17 and 21, set out for a training ride from Kabul to the hills of neighboring Paghman.

Mindful of turning heads and ogling eyes, they rode in the amber light of dawn through a landscape of grassy knolls, fruit orchards and tree-lined boulevards.

A little boy dressed in a grubby shalwar kameez stopped by the wayside and stared at the girls with wonder and amazement.

Up ahead, dour-looking bearded men in a Toyota minivan pulled up parallel to the cyclists — their stares were more menacing.

But the wheels continued to spin as the women powered ahead undaunted.

They have become accustomed to the hostility, often accompanied by insults:

“Whore.”

“Slut.”

“You're bringing dishonor to your families.”

“Go home.”

But the team say they are emboldened despite such attitudes — partly due to the encouraging support from unexpected quarters.

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This photograph taken on June 9 shows members of the Afghan national women's cycling team riding their road bikes in Paghman district of Kabul province. (AFP)

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