Afghan cyclists to race to raise 'alarm' over women's plight
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For Afghan refugee cyclist Masomah Ali Zada, it will be a bittersweet moment. For the first time in five years, she will take part in the Afghanistan Women's Cycling Championships on Sunday, but not in Kabul.
Instead, the 26-year-old will race in southwest Switzerland, reunited with dozens of Afghan cyclists who now live in different countries.
Since the hardline Taliban returned to power last year and restricted women's freedoms, Ali Zada says "sport is dead" for Afghan women.
The Taliban have banned women from playing sport, barred women from many government jobs and forbidden secondary school education for girls.
But Ali Zada, who has lived in France for the past five years, has not given up and continues to represent her country.
A special moment for Ali Zada came last summer when she took part in the Tokyo Olympics where she hoped to be a beacon for women forced to leave their country or to abandon their sporting dreams.
She was the first Afghan female cyclist to compete in the games as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.
But "the Taliban ruined what I experienced in Tokyo", she tells AFP.
Unable to enjoy her Olympic adventure, she spent the rest of the summer with a heavy heart as she followed minute by minute the events unfolding in Afghanistan, with Kabul falling in August 2021 and the Taliban put back in charge.
When she was growing up, her family, part of the historically oppressed Shiite Muslim Hazara community, were forced to live in Iran like millions of other Afghans.
It was there she learned how to ride a bike before joining the Afghan national team at the age of 16 when the family returned to Kabul.
- 'Worsens each day' -
After years of being physically attacked for daring to don sportswear, suffering insults for simply riding a bike and having stones thrown at her, she sought asylum in France in 2016. The pressure on her to give up had become too strong as her victories multiplied.
The situation has since worsened in Afghanistan.
"Every day, women lose a new right," she says in a soft voice, adding that many are put in prison or forced to leave the country.
Since their return, the Taliban have imposed restrictions that aim to force women to live under a fundamentalist version of Islam.
Girls can no longer go to high school and while women can still attend university, that will be difficult in the future since girls today will not have the necessary classes to go on to higher education.
"Dreaming big for girls today is just being able to go to school. Just going to school. So sport is completely dead for women," says Ali Zada, who is currently studying at Polytech Lille University.
Benafsha Faizi, a journalist and former spokeswoman for the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee who fled the country with the International Cycling Union (UCI) in 2021, agrees.
"For a woman to play sport today in Afghanistan is just unthinkable. And the situation worsens each day," she says.
- Afghan women 'abandoned' -
Ali Zada, who has joined the International Olympic Committee Athletes' Commission, believes "the world has become silent" in the face of the repression of Afghan women.
"We abandoned women in Afghanistan. Everyone who says they defend human rights, all those who say they defend women, they haven't done anything," she says.
She hopes the race on Sunday, and the media interest that it will garner, will "raise the alarm" to "wake the world up".
A total of 49 female cyclists from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Singapore and Switzerland will take part in the 57-kilometre (35-mile) race in the Swiss city of Aigle and the surrounding Vaud canton, where UCI has its headquarters.
Ali Zada says she is "a bit sad" thinking about the women "abandoned in Afghanistan".
But she is "so happy" to reunite with "teammates with whom I cycled with in Afghanistan. It's been five years since I last saw them".
Juggling her studies and cycling, she prepared for the event but doesn't say who she thinks will win the race.
"All that I know is that there are no losers."