The Bicycle as a Symbol of Suffrage Reborn in Afghanistan

Rising Team - Wednesday, May 27, 2015
by Rhaeadr Ryan
The bicycle as a symbol of women’s suffrage has seen a rebirth. Afghani women are now claiming their freedom, and standing up to cultural rules by taking to bike riding. 

Afghani women are (culturally) not allowed to ride bicycles. This cultural rule has no legal basis. Technically, it is legally permissible for women to ride bikes. However, it is considered to be amoral for women to ride bicycles. It is viewed as being far too provocative for a woman to be straddling a bike. In fact, until recently, there was apparently not a single woman who even dared try and ride a bike; this being out of fear of verbal or even physical abuse—in some cases even from members of their own families. 

Recently however, a movement has arisen in Afghanistan. Women have courageously started riding bicycles, and have even begun training for world competitions. 

This movement was started by an American women named Shannon Galpin. She began riding her bike in Afghanistan (the first women ever to do so in Afghanistan!), both for the beauty of the countryside, and for the physical challenge that riding in Afghanistan provides. She is now training Afghanistan’s first ever women’s national cycling team. 

The women involved in this new movement are courageous beyond belief. Some have been attacked whilst riding. Some have experienced discrimination from their own families. I think it is important to recognize, however, that virtually all successful human rights movements start with the oppressed claiming their freedom, and showing the world around them that they deserve equal opportunity and protection. Through their actions, these brave women are transforming the way Afghans think about women. 

I’ve always loved the saying, “Rules are made to be broken”. In this case, rules must be broken to have any hope of being changed. 

In training for a world competition (hopefully the 2020 Olympics), the Afghan women’s cycling team is well on its way to changing the entire perception of women by the people of Afghanistan, in general. Surely this success will not be ignored, especially when achieved in the name of the country itself. 

It’s ironic that the bicycle has become a symbol of the women’s movement in Afghanistan. It was also famously a symbol of suffrage at the end of the 19th century. With the symbolic bicycle seemingly experiencing a rebirth, maybe suffrage is coming to Afghanistan and maybe great transformations are coming too. 

Let’s hope so.

Artisan Spotlight: Zardozi Markets, Afghanistan

Rising Team - Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Zardozi Markets started as an income-generating project set up 26 years ago to assist some of the women in the hundreds of thousands of families which poured across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan when fighting started. Today thousands of poor Afghan women earn a steady income from embroidery and handicraft production thanks to Zardozi. Rising International was referred to Zardozi by our friends at the Khaled Hosseini Foundation, and we have proudly partnered with and supported their program since 2013. All of the women at Zardozi describe having an income of their own as life changing in terms of achieving status as individuals in their families and communities and allowing them some control over their own lives.

Razima’s Story

“Hello. My name is Razima, and I was 15 years old when I migrated to Pakistan in 1988 from Afghanistan to escape the war. I spent some time in the Baghicha refugee camp, and while I was there I married a security guard who worked for a private company. I lovingly mothered 9 children from my marriage, and built a home for us in Peshawar. I had happily settled down in life until one unfortunate day when my husband met an accident that left him paralyzed, unable to work or earn. Being a self respecting and brave woman, I turned to my embroidery skills to cater to the needs of my family and the medical expenses of my husband. I am grateful for the opportunity to use my skills to provide for my family.”

Product Spotlight: The Nadera Doll

Rising Team - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Handmade dolls are traditionally made by Afghan mothers for their daughters. Rising International's Nadera Doll Project empowers widows in Afghanistan by offering them the ability to earn an income by selling their handmade dolls in the United States.  In 2003 Rising International launched the Nadera Doll project (originally called the Afghan Widows Doll Project) with the assistance of Jamila Hashimi, an Afghan literacy teacher and her daughter, who is now a Rising International Board Member. During the time of the Taliban, Jamila ran a secret school for girls and women; years later, the Nadera Doll Project was started with Jamila’s original students.

Over 60 widows have participated in the project, and in the 12-month period from September 2012 to August 2013 our widows earned an average supplemental income of $612.00 each. The highest earner made $1133.00, with an average annual income in Afghanistan being $250.00.

In 2007 one of our doll makers, Nadera, was tragically killed by a suicide bomb that was placed in a vegetable cart at the local marketplace. The Afghan Widows Doll Project was re-named the Nadera Doll in her honor.

Where does the money go? The retail price for each doll is $34.00. The dollmaker earns $11.00 (32% of retail), the project manager in Afghanistan earns $1.00 per doll (3%), the shipping cost is $2.66 (7%), a local Rising Representative earns $6.80 (20%) and Rising raises $12.54 (36%) to reinvest in purchasing more dolls. This means that the dollmaker (a woman in Afghanistan) and the Rising Representative (an entrepreneur in the U.S.) earn 52% of the retail price!

For every doll sold an Afghan widow can purchase 6 meals. For two dolls sold she can send a child to school for a month.  

Photo credit: Jean Bathke/Rising International

Support This Cause Today!

When we dare...

Carmel Jud - Wednesday, July 23, 2014
On May 11, 2002, I gave up my successful advertising business and launched Rising International right from my living room. I had been searching for my purpose, and when it came calling, I listened. My husband and I sold everything we owned and moved into a friend’s barn while we worked to get Rising off the ground, and today we are the first non-profit in the world to use the home-party business model to contribute to solving poverty.

My very first project was in Afghanistan. I met a young Afghan woman who was in the U.S. on scholarship, and she introduced me to her mother Jamila. I was shocked to learn that Jamila had run a secret school for girls in Kabul during the time of the Taliban, and that she had literally risked her life in the name of gender equality and education.

Below is an excerpt of Jamila’s story, in her own words, translated from Dari. I hope you find it as inspiring I as did then, and as I still do to this day. She truly demonstrates what we are capable of… when we dare.

Jamila’s Story:

“The word feminist is not one you hear frequently in Afghanistan. But if you were to have my daughter describe me, that is the word that would come first to her mind. As long as I can remember I was passionate about knowledge, and I knew that education was freedom.

When I was 6 years old I decided to secretly enroll myself in school. I rose to the top of my class of 2000 students, eventually receiving my Bachelor’s Degree.  I became a teacher, and I was the first woman in my family to receive a formal education.

In 1996 the Taliban took control. In one moment our world changed. We were stripped of our freedoms, and women were prisoners in our own homes. Never in history has there been a regime that has violently forced half of its population into house arrest.

I waited 6 months hoping that I could go back to work as a teacher, but that day never came. I knew I had to do something for my daughters, for myself, and for all of the women around me. I started a secret school for girls in the basement of my home.

We had no electricity, one carpet for the students to sit on, and for a chalkboard I used a piece of flat wood and painted it black with the liquid you find in old radio batteries. I only had one book in our local language of Dari, and the Holy Quran which I used to educate the girls.

One day the Taliban found out. They followed one of my students to my home. That girl never came back to school, and I never found out what happened to her. They shouted at my husband, and hit me. They told my husband that if I didn’t stop the school they would kill me.

I felt so much rage in me.  I shouted at them ‘You are born of a woman too! How can you not let women get an education?!’  My husband pleaded with me to close the school because he knew they would kill me. For my family’s safety, I complied.

A year after the Taliban was defeated, one of my daughters was awarded a scholarship to study in America. My husband and I decided to take another risk: we became the first Afghan couple to allow a daughter to travel to the United States for higher education. My daughter became the first Afghan woman to receive her Master’s degree after the Taliban.

One day in 2003 she called me and told me she had met an American woman who wanted to help Afghan women. Together with Carmel Jud of Rising International, we began the Afghan Widows Doll Project. I contacted 10 women who had once been in my secret school to begin making traditional Afghan Dolls. They made the dolls, and the Rising Representatives in the United States sold the dolls at small parties in people’s homes. Together, we had started a project that could help the women earn a living for themselves.

Today our project continues. My former student Fatima is now a Rising Artisan, a success, and an inspiration. She, along with a number of other vulnerable widows, continues to make the dolls by hand, and the income she has generated making dolls has been life-changing for herself and her family. Every doll she sells and every doll we buy keeps Fatima, her daughter and other women safe.

Running the secret school, I knew the punishment could be death. Punishment for education of girls ranged from hanging to stoning.  I risked my life because I believe women and girls matter, I believe education is a human right.  I believe that anything is possible when you put your fears aside and do what’s right!”

Photo credit: Alyssa Cutler

Click here to see an excerpt from Jamila's Keynote Speech at Rising's San Francisco Launch Event.

This blog post is also featured on Huff Post Impact's blog!

Introduction: The Afghan Dolls Project, Afghanistan

Rising Team - Wednesday, February 24, 2010
More than thirty years of war and destruction have left Afghanistan one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world. Denied to the rights of basic necessities in life, women have been the primary victims of the past 15 years of war. The worst of those years were during the Taliban Regime (1996 – 2001), when women were forbidden to work, leave the house without a male escort, not allowed to seek medical help from a male doctor, and were denied access to education. 

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, it is apparent that the political and cultural position of Afghan women has improved substantially; however, women continue to struggle as the poorest members of society and face numerous challenges at home and within their communities. Currently 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. A staggering 70-80 percent of women are subject to forced marriages. In their lifetime, one in every three Afghan women will experience physical, psychological or sexual violence. 

In 2003, Rising International and Jamila Hashimi launched the Afghan Dolls Project to empower women of Afghanistan. Focusing efforts on widows in Kabul city, the Afghan Dolls Project looks to expand access to markets and sell the hand-made dolls in the US. Since 2003, Rising has helped over 60 widows in Kabul city. The Project has empowered the widows by providing them with a source of income, regardless of their second class status as women.

In Memory of Nadera

Rising Team - Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nadera, like so many of our artists, was not only poor, she lived in a treacherous, dangerous part of the world. Along with her two sons, Nadera lived in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kabul is still a hostile area full of famine and hardship. Safety in Kabul is limited. In 2007, as Nadera walked to the market, she was taken from us… killed by a bomb placed in a vegetable cart by a suicide bomber.

Nadera was of one of our artists, and it is with a sad heart that Rising International announces her death.

Shunned by her husband for association with a sister who had spoken of divorce, and in dire need of money to raise her boys, Nadera found hope in making dolls to sell. She was inspired by a teacher in Kabul named Jamila Hashimi. Nadera was one of thirty-five women with whom Jamila works with, teaching literacy and sewing skills. This quiet group of widows and women abandoned by their husbands gathering in Kabul would otherwise be forgotten in this harsh and adverse environment. In a small room, with one sewing machine to share among 35, Nadera could make a living for herself and her boys.

Nadera was one of the poorest people in the world, and consequently her death could have gone unnoticed, like the thousands of other women in her same situation. But we can change this.

In her honor, Rising International will keep the last shipment of thirteen of Nadera’s dolls and reserve a place of honor for them. We will also rename our Afghan Women’s Doll Project "The Nadera Doll - An Afghan Women’s Empowerment Project." When you see one of these beautiful handmade dolls, please join us in remembering Nadera.

Click to view products from the Afghan Dolls Project

Shaemah's Story of Hope

Rising Team - Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shaemah is one of the Afghan widows who made dolls for Rising. She had two daughters and two sons; she was too young when her husband was taken from the family. When Shaemah joined the Nadera Doll Project, she looked too nice. Unlike the other widows, who look too depressed and sad, Shaemah was a healthy and young woman. It was hard to believe that she was a widow. Shaemah would laugh all the time and talked openly.


Sadly, two weeks after our Rising Team was able to interview Shaemah at her home in Kabul, we learned she unexpectedly died from a heart problem. While Shaemah is no longer with us, we have her story to share, and in her place her eldest daughter has taken on the responsibility to care for the family and sew dolls to sell with Rising International.


She shared her life story like this:


I was in secondary class eight of school when my family engaged me to my husband, Ahmad. After one year, we celebrate our wedding party, and in accordance with Afghani tradition, I stayed at home and I couldn’t continue my studies. But I was too happy in my own family. Our economic situation was good. My husband could afford a home and a lot of property.


Then the Mujahideen government came to power. My husband’s cousins, who left Afghanistan during the communist times, came to Kabul. Because my husband had much land and many properties, the cousins would come from time to time to our home and would talk with my husband. They seemed like very close friends, but after a few months, they threatened my husband and told him, “You were a Communist because you lived in Capital of Afghanistan (Kabul)!”


My husband never told me that his cousins threatened him. Then, one day, when I was busy in the kitchen my husband came and asked me to give him one pot with which to bring some vegetables from our garden. I gave him a pot, and he went away. Five minutes later, I heard our gardener shouting, “Ahmad was killed by a person who had stood above the garden’s wall and shot Ahmad.”


We all ran to the garden. He was laid out on the soil, and his blood filled all the ground, the gunshot ripped through his head. My small children and I shouted a lot, but there wasn’t anyone to help us. All of my husband’s relatives lived in Pakistan, and there wasn’t anyone in Kabul to bury him. My eldest son, who was 14 years old, called our neighbors and they helped us make a grave for him… We couldn't keep his body because there was simply too much blood.


After my husband was killed, our dark life began. My husband’s cousins arrogated our lands. They stole from our home and shops. They took many things. These events made me look for a job, but because I didn’t graduate from school, I couldn't find a good job. I started taking a typing course, and when I passed my typing courses I found a suitable job in one of the governmental ministries. Unfortunately, my income is too little and it is not enough for us. Because of this I make cotton dolls.


When we asked Shaemah about the benefits the Doll Project has had on her life, she said, “In every round of doll’s I sew, I make about 3000 - 4000 afghani, and it helps me to pay for my children’s course fees. My salary from the government is only 2500 afghani per month. I am thankful for this doll’s project. It has improved my life economic.”

Click to view products from the Afghan Dolls Project

Afghan Gal's Story of Hope

Rising Team - Monday, February 15, 2010

Afghan Gal is one of the Afghan Dolls Project widows. She is 41 years old and supports her 5 children, one grandchild and her sister-in-law. She lost her husband 14 years ago, and has a sadness about her.

This is her story:


When I was married, we had very calm and happy life. We lived in Chal Saton District in our own house. My husband had one taxi and he would work from 6:00 in the morning until the evening, near 6:00pm. Because of this our economic situation was good.


But after the coming of the Mujahideen government, Afghanistan’s security wasn’t safe and fighting was in every district of Kabul. One day, when my husband left home for his work, he didn’t come back home that night. We tried a lot to find him but our effort  was negative.


Eventually, after six months, we got his corpse from a collective grave west of Kabul. His hands and legs were tied by wire.


His killers first killed my husband, then they sold his taxi. We hadn’t a person at home to work for us, and my children were small babies. They wanted my milk. My concern for my children’s lives made me to do every kind of work I could.


It is my bad luck that I am illiterate, so I had to find work as a servant of rich people, but my income was too little. I had to borrow money from one of our relatives. With this money I made a one women bakery. After four years I became sick and the doctor ordered me to stop bakery, because from the wood’s smoke I got tuberculosis.


During those times, I made my oldest son go out to sell pens and notebooks in front of schools. I will never forget… one day my son came home and he was crying. He shouted, “I want to study like the other children! I stand near the schools every day, but I can’t go to school.” I told him that you don’t have a father, so you must earn money for supporting life for your younger brothers and sisters.


When we asked Afghan Gal if she is happy with the income she receives from sewing dolls, she said “why not? I am happy, and with dolls income I can pay for my children’s courses fee. Now my oldest son can go to school. I want to be making dolls in every month.”


Click to view products from the Afghan Dolls Project