Home Cycling “From the Taliban to Education: The Untold Story of Yulduz and Fariba Hashimi”

“From the Taliban to Education: The Untold Story of Yulduz and Fariba Hashimi”

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On a hot June day in Italy, dark clouds were starting to form and the air was getting really humid. It seemed like a storm was about to arrive, as it usually does in summertime. Fariba Hashimi (in the middle), Yulduz Hashimi (on the left) and Zehra Rezayee from Afghanistan all posed for a picture on the podium after winning the Women’s Road Championships of 2022.

They are riding on a really cool route. The road is almost empty, and the incredible view of a village in Veneto awaits them when they reach the top. However, the path has 17 winding turns and curves, numbered at each corner. They are advanced cyclists – some of the best from their country – but have never experienced such bends before and must face it even though it’s pouring with rain.

The sisters come from a place far away in northern Afghanistan, where the roads are so bumpy and dusty that it’s difficult to even walk on them.

Upon reaching the top, they stop to take in the views of their new home. Large drops of rain pour off their helmets as they look at each other and smile before taking off again down the hill shouting “See you back home!”

Even before the Taliban returned, cycling had never been easy for these sisters.

Fariba and Yulduz Hashimi were born in a very conservative part of Afghanistan that was almost never seen with women cycling. In 2017, their hometown Faryab province hosted a bike race, so the sisters at 14 and 17 years old decided to participate. But there was one challenge…they had never ridden a bike before! They asked a neighbour for help, then spent an afternoon learning how to ride until they finally got it!

Since they did not want their family to find out, the sisters had to be sneaky and race secretly. To hide their identity, they wore large clothes and scarves, as well as sunglasses to cover their faces. They even changed their names!

And after all these precautions were taken, they placed first and second in the race – it felt incredible! Fariba says “It was like I could fly.”

The sisters come from Faryab province in Afghanistan, which is right near the border of Turkmenistan.

Fariba and her friend kept entering small bike races. As they kept winning, it was harder to hide their victories from their parents. But soon enough, photos taken by the local media revealed that they had been competing.

“When my parents found out, they were mad at first and asked me to stop racing,” Fariba mentioned with a smile. “Still, I kept cycling even though they warned me about the risks.” Eventually, however, their parents accepted Fariba’s decision to keep riding and became supportive of her instead.

The sisters faced trouble a lot. People were mean to them and would even try to hurt them, like throwing stones at them or trying to hit them with cars or rickshaws. Even the girls in their school bullied them for biking. But one day, they were selected to join the national team and they felt very happy on that day.

Everything had been going well for them till August 2021 when the Taliban came back in charge of things. This put their lives at risk since these hard-line Islamists don’t allow women to do any sports activities. They’ve also restricted female freedom by not allowing girls to go to school or university – cutting off completely the access that females have to education.

The Taliban have taken away a lot of rights from women. They are not allowed to get jobs, go to certain places or dress the way they want. Women must cover themselves completely by following the rigid Taliban code of conduct for dressing. In cities, most women wear headscarves. Women can’t even travel far away places without being accompanied by a male guardian. Because of all their lost rights, many women have had to wonder what else is left for them.

The United Nations said that 2.6 million Afghans became refugees in 2021 because the Taliban returned to power. Fariba, Yulduz and other women athletes are examples of how Afghanistan had progressed with gender equality for the past 20 years since a coalition from the US overthrew their old government. The new version of their country is not accepted by the Taliban.

The sisters realized that the only way they could continue with their cycling career was to seek help. So, they reached out to Alessandra Cappellotto from Italy who is a world champ in road racing since 1997. She helps women all over the world by running her charity called Road to Equality which arranged a bike race for International Women’s Day this past March in Kabul. The Hashimi sisters met Alessandra there at the race.

Cappellotto said it was natural to help them because they needed help and were in danger. So she contacted lots of people and organisations, like the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations, asking for support. With her help, Fariba and Yulduz plus three of their friends – Nooria Mohammadi, Zahra Rezayee and Arezo Sarwari – got seats on a flight from Kabul which was organised by the Italian government.

Leaving Kabul airport was very chaotic and sad. Fariba had to say goodbye to her family with no idea when she’d see them again. She never thought that she would be in the situation of having to leave her country. Alessandra Cappellotto took them to a town located in Veneto, Italy. This is close to where Cappellotto lives and it’s also the same place where she won gold at a world road race in 1997.

Alessandra is a cycling hero in Italy! She was really helpful to the group – she showed them where they could go on bike rides and provided them with transport, a house to live in, part-time jobs, Italian lessons, bikes, a coach and even organised their training schedule. Fariba says that Alessandra is almost like a mother to all of them.

The group and their coach Maurizio have grown very close. Everyone affectionately calls him ‘Capitano’. The team has had to work hard under his guidance. Yulduz said that when she arrived, everything about cycling seemed new to her because back in Afghanistan, she had never had a coach before. She felt like she knew nothing about cycling.

Alessandra says that the level of cycling in Europe and Italy is the best in the world. But, they had to take a safety course since they weren’t used to riding on roads with cars. Later, they joined the Valcar cycling team from Italy and competed in races like UCI World Gravel Championships which was held in Vicenza where they placed 33rd and 39th.

In October, the sisters traveled to Aigle, Switzerland to take part in their first race outside of Italy since arriving. They raced in the 2022 Women’s Road Championships of Afghanistan because it was unsafe to hold the race at home.

The competition ended with an exciting sprint off between Fariba and her sister. In the end, Fariba became the Afghan women’s road champion. As soon as they crossed the finish line, both sisters hugged and tears were shed.

Fariba recently won a big prize that allowed her to join the Israel-Premier Tech-Roland cycling team and compete at the highest level (Women’s WorldTour). She said that she never thought this would happen, but is excited to race for all Afghan women. Her sister Yulduz also got onto this professional team while their friend Zahra won bronze.

Fazli Ahmad Fazli, President of the Afghan Cycling Federation, is very happy and proud of all the women who took part in the race. He believes that soon enough these talented riders will bring victory for Afghanistan.

Fifty people from various places around Europe, Canada and Singapore participated in this event and some of them had to leave their homes in Afghanistan back in August 2021.

The two sisters have big ambitions. They want to become the first ever cyclists from Afghanistan – who are either male or female – to be part of the Olympics. However, it won’t be easy—it’s very difficult to qualify for the Olympics. Even worse, Afghanistan might not even be able to participate in the Olympic Games at all! In December, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) warned that their government (the Taliban) could prevent Afghanistan from joining the Olympics in 2024 unless they let women and young girls play sports just like anyone else.

If that happens, Afghan refugees would be able to compete through the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Refugee Olympic Team. For example, Masomah Ali Zada of Afghanistan was part of the IOC’s team in Tokyo 2020. However, Fariba and Yulduz have both received Olympic scholarships providing them with financial and technical support for their sport career. They both want to represent their homeland by flying its flag – even though its government has been removed from power.

“My biggest dream is to make my parents proud by raising the flag of Afghanistan,” Yulduz says. “Cycling is a sport where being determined, hardworking and having enthusiasm matters, and these girls have those qualities,” adds Alessandra.

Yulduz (left) and Fariba (centre) holding both Italian and Afghanistan flags after their victory.

They really miss their families, and become very sad when talking about them. But sometimes they’re reminded why they left.

Some of their relatives who are part of the Taliban have sent them messages on social media asking them to cover up in photos taken from international media that showed them running.

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

The last year was a huge change for them. But Italy, and the people they now consider their community, have been very kind to them. “The Taliban took away my dreams. But in Italy, I have another chance,” said Yulduz happily.

At such a young age, the sisters had to make a tough decision- between their home and family or pursuing their aspirations. At least they are happy to have each other’s company throughout this challenging journey.

The Taliban does not allow people to go back home as professional athletes. Despite this, the sisters want to prove that leaving everything behind was worthwhile. So, they are doing their utmost in cycling to prove themselves true.

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