How cycling carried two sisters out of the Taliban’s reach

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Yulduz Hashimi, Fariba Hashimi and Zehra Rezayee on the podium after the Women's Road Championships of Afghanistan 2022
Yulduz Hashimi (left), Fariba Hashimi (centre) and fellow Afghan Zehra Rezayee on the podium after the Women’s Road Championships of Afghanistan 2022

It’s a scorching hot June afternoon in the middle of an Italian heatwave. There hasn’t been any rain for a month. But grey clouds are slowly rolling in and the humidity is rising fast. A storm is brewing. The kind that only happens once a summer here.

Two sisters are in the foothills of the Dolomites, about to start a 10km climb, weaving to the top of a small mountain. Three of their team-mates, and best friends, are by their side.

It’s a beautiful route. There are few cars on the road up and a stunning view over a Veneto village awaits them as a reward.

They press on. There are 17 winding bends, numbered at each turn. They are elite cyclists – some of the best from their country. But they’re not used to riding around bends, and they’re certainly not used to cycling in pouring, driving rain.

It’s far from the dusty landscape of northern Afghanistan where they come from, where often the rubbly roads are not even suitable to walk on.

At the top, they pause to admire the view of their new home. Fat droplets of rain run down off their helmets. It’s time to go. They grin at each other as they take off on the descent: “See you at home!”

Short presentational grey line

It had never been easy for the sisters to cycle, even before the return of the Taliban.

Fariba and Yulduz Hashimi were born in one of the most remote, conservative provinces in Afghanistan, where it was practically unheard of to see women cycling.

In 2017 a local cycle race was put on in their local Faryab province, in the north. The sisters – then aged 14 and 17 – decided they wanted to take part.

But there was one small problem. They didn’t know how to ride a bike.

They borrowed a neighbour’s to practice one afternoon. After a few hours, they finally got the hang of it.

They had to take part in the race secretly because they hadn’t told their family. They covered themselves up, wearing big baggy clothing, large headscarves and sunglasses so people didn’t recognise them. They even changed their names.

They ended up finishing first and second. “It felt amazing. I felt like a bird who could fly,” Fariba, now 19, tells BBC Sport.

View of a small Afghan city, snow-topped mountains in the distance and a blue sky
Faryab province, where the sisters come from, borders Turkmenistan in the north of Afghanistan

They carried on, entering as many small races as they could. It became harder to keep it from their family because they kept winning. Their parents soon found out from photos taken by local media.

“They were upset at first. They asked me to stop cycling,” Fariba says. “But I didn’t give up. I secretly continued,” she smiles.

Their parents warned against the dangers, but eventually they were supportive.

The sisters faced regular harassment. “People were abusive. All I wanted to do was win races,” Yulduz, 22, explains.

“There were lots of threats,” Fariba adds. “People tried to hit us with their cars or rickshaws. They threw stones at us.”

Even their female class-mates at school bullied them for riding bikes.

Soon though, they got noticed, and were called up for the national team.

“I will never forget the day,” Yulduz says. “I felt on top of the world.”

Their careers went steadily uphill from there, until the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021.

It changed everything, and immediately put their lives in danger. The hard-line Islamist group bans women from playing any sport. But that’s not all.

Since returning to power, the group have consistently cracked down on women’s rights and freedoms.

They’ve banned all girls from going to school, and most recently from attending university – entirely cutting off female access to education.

They’ve banned women from most areas of employment – including humanitarian aid organisations.

Women don’t have the freedom to dress how they want. The Taliban code of conduct says women must cover themselves entirely, but most women in big cities wear the headscarf.

They are not allowed to travel long distances without a male chaperone, and have been barred from going to parks and gyms. Without so many rights, many women have wondered what’s left for them.

A crowd of people waiting on the roadside outside Kabul airport, trying to leave the country in August 2021
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimated 2.6m Afghans became refugees during 2021 as the Taliban returned to power

Fariba and Yulduz – and other female athletes like them – were representative of an Afghanistan which had been making some progress towards gender equality over the two decades since a US-led coalition’s overthrow of the old regime. The new version of the country though was not one the Taliban recognised.

The sisters knew they had to leave if they had any chance of continuing their careers. So, they contacted Alessandra Cappellotto. The Italian, who won a world road title in 1997, now uses cycling to help women around the world.

Her charity Road to Equality had sponsored a race organised in Kabul for International Women’s Day in March 2021. The Hashimi sisters had met Cappellotto then.

“They asked for help. Their lives were in danger. So it was natural to help them,” Cappellotto says. She called every contact and organisation she could think of to get them out; from the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs to the United Nations.

With her influence, Fariba and Yulduz, as well as three of their team-mates – Nooria Mohammadi, Zahra Rezayee and Arezo Sarwari – got a seat on a flight from Kabul, organised by the Italian government.

Leaving Kabul airport was a chaotic, upsetting experience. They had to say goodbye to their families, not knowing when – or if – they’d see them again.

“I never thought I would be a refugee. I never imagined that I’d have to leave my country,” Fariba says.

Cappellotto brought them to a small, hilly town in the Veneto region of northern Italy, close to where she lives.

Three cyclists at the finish line of a race
Alessandra Cappellotto (far right) became the first Italian woman to win world road race gold in 1997

It’s no coincidence that it’s a location that’s hugely popular with cyclists, with countless picturesque cycling routes.

She helped the group settle in their new country, organised a house for them to live in, part-time jobs, and – most importantly – weekly private Italian lessons.

Alessandra also crucially set them up with brand-new bikes, a professional coach, and a training schedule.

“Alessandra is an Italian cycling hero,” Fariba says. “She’s helped us a lot. She’s like a mother to us.”

The group has formed a close bond with their coach, Maurizio. They affectionately call him the ‘Capitano’.

A group photo including five cyclists and their bikes
Fariba and Yulduz with their coach Maurizio (centre), Alessandra Cappellotto (fifth from left) and team-mates

Under his care, the team have had to work hard. “We never had a coach in Afghanistan. When I arrived, I felt there was a lot to learn,” Yulduz says. “It was a shock. It was like I didn’t know anything about cycling.”

“They had a more basic technical level of cycling, yes,” explains Alessandra. “But it’s true that the level of cycling in Europe and Italy is the best in the world.”

It was also an issue of safety. They weren’t used to cycling on roads with cars. They had to take a cycling proficiency course – usually taken by children.

They joined the Italian cycling team Valcar, taking part in races around Italy such as the UCI World Gravel Championships in nearby Vicenza – where they came 33rd and 39th.

In October they took part in their first big race abroad since arriving in Italy. The 2022 Women’s Road Championships of Afghanistan was hosted in Aigle, Switzerland, because of the situation in the country.

Two cyclists celebrating at the finish line
The sisters fought out a thrilling finish in October’s national championships

Fariba won the race after an exciting sprint-off against her sister, to become the new Afghan women’s road champion. After they crossed the finish line, the sisters embraced in a long, tearful hug.

Fariba’s win secured a contract with the Israel-Premier Tech-Roland team and she is set to step up to the Women’s WorldTour level – the highest level in road cycling – later this year.

“I did not expect this in my wildest dreams. I will race for all Afghan women!” she told media after.

Her older sister Yulduz, who got silver, has also won a place on Israel-Premier Tech-Roland’s Development team. Zahra Rezayee – their friend and flat-mate – secured the bronze.

“I am very happy for them,” Fazli Ahmad Fazli, Afghan Cycling Federation President said. “These women are amazing riders and I’m sure that soon they will win in big races for Afghanistan.”

Fifty riders took part in the race, many of whom fled Afghanistan in August 2021. They came from across different countries in Europe where they are claiming asylum, as well as Singapore and Canada.

The sisters have big dreams. They want to become the first cyclists ever – male or female – to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics.

It won’t be easy – qualifying for the Olympics is hugely competitive. And Afghanistan may not be there at all.

In December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned the Taliban government that the country could be banned from Paris 2024 unless women and young girls were allowed safe access to sport.

If that happens, Afghan refugees could have the option to compete under the IOC Refugee Olympic team instead – like Afghan cyclist Masomah Ali Zada did at Tokyo 2020.

But Fariba and Yulduz, who have won Olympic scholarships giving them financial and technical support for their careers, want to represent their homeland – and the flag of its toppled government specifically.

“I want to raise the flag of Afghanistan,” Yulduz says. “I want my father and mother to see me and feel proud. That would be the biggest dream ever.”

“Cycling is a sport where willpower, the desire to work hard and passion count for a lot. And these girls definitely have these things,” Alessandra tells me.

Two cyclists holding flags after their win
Yulduz (left) and Fariba (centre) holding Italian and Afghanistan flags after their win

They desperately miss home, and become instantly emotional when talking about their families. But too often they’re reminded why they left.

They have had social media messages from relatives who are members of the Taliban – telling them to cover up in photos they’ve seen of them racing in international media.

“My friends can’t go to school or leave their homes,” Yulduz says. “I think, what would have happened to me if I stayed?”

The past year has been a huge culture shock. But Italy, and the community they have become a part of, has welcomed them with open arms. “When the Taliban came, my dream was dying. But Italy gave me another hope,” smiles Yulduz.

It’s a brutal decision to have had to make so young – choosing between your homeland and family, and your career and dreams. These sisters are thankful to have each other to share the highs and lows of such tremendous change.

While the Taliban is in charge, returning home as professional athletes isn’t an option. In the meantime, the sisters want to prove to everyone, but most of all themselves, that the sacrifice of leaving everything behind was worth it. And they’re throwing everything they can into their cycling to do so.

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