Shannon Galpin is giving women a stronger voice through cycling the streets of Afghanistan and sharing her own story with sexual violence.
In 2006, Shannon Galpin—an athletic trainer and Pilates instructor—quit her job, sold her home, and headed to war-torn Afghanistan. There she launched an organization called Mountain2Mountain, aimed at educating and empowering women. Eight years later, the 40-year-old has been to Afghanistan 19 times—and has done everything from touring prisons to building schools for the deaf. Most recently, she's returned to her fitness roots, supporting Afghanistan's first national women's cycling team by providing more than 55 Liv bikes. And now she's behind an initiative called Strength in Numbers, which uses two-wheelers as a symbol of women's freedom and a tool for social justice and launches in the U.S. and high-conflict countries in 2016.
Shape: Why did you start the Mountain2Mountain organization?
Shannon Galpin [SG]: My sister had been raped on her college campus and I had also been raped when I was 18 and nearly killed. We were 10 years apart and attacked at relatively the same age—18 and 20, in two different states, Minnesota and Colorado—and that made me realize that the world needed to change, and I needed to be part of that. I knew that I had a unique insight into gender violence; and also being a mother, I wanted the world to be a safer, better place for women.
Shape: What made you focus your attention on Afghanistan?
SG: Even though gender violence happened to me in the U.S., we have these freedoms that those women don’t. So I decided that if I was really going to understand these issues, I was going to start in the place that’s repeatedly ranked the worst spot to be a woman. I wanted to better understand the culture in hopes of not only effecting change there, but to learn how to affect change back home as well.
Shape: Do you feel like you’ve seen a different side of what’s happening over there now that you’ve been there so many times?
SG: Definitely. One of the things that moved me most was visiting and working in the women’s prisons. When I was in the Kandahar women’s prison, I really came to a turning point. It was in the Kandahar prison that I really realized that voice matters and owning our own story is the core of who we are. If we don’t use our voice, then how do we create change?
Shape: What do you think brought that out?
SG: Many of the women I met had been victims of rape and they had been thrown in jail just due to geography. Being born in America, I was in a very different place. Instead of being someone who can go about her life and move forward, I could have been thrown in jail to protect honor and be charged with adultery. There was also this realization that most of the women were in jail and no one had ever listened to their story—not their family, not a judge, or a lawyer. It’s incredibly disempowering. And I realized that these women, who had no reason to share their deep, dark secrets with me still poured out their stories. There is something incredibly liberating about sharing your story, knowing that someone is listening, and that the story would live outside those walls. They finally had a chance to be heard. That became the thread of all of the work that I started doing with Mountain2Mountain, whether it was in the arts or with athletes.
Shape: Tell us about how you got involved in the biking.
SG: I first took my bike over there in 2009. It was an experiment of sorts to test gender barriers that prevented women from riding bikes. As a mountain biker, I was very excited to explore Afghanistan. I wanted to see what people’s reactions would be. Would they be curious? Would they be angry? And could I then have better insight into why women can’t ride bikes there? It’s one of the few countries in the world where that’s still a taboo. The bike became an incredible icebreaker. Eventually, in 2012, I met a young man who was part of the men’s national cycling team. I got invited to go for a ride with the boy’s team and I met the coach, who I found out was also coaching a girls team. The reason he started it was because his daughter had wanted to ride and as a cyclist, he thought, 'this is something girls and boys should be able to do.' So I met with the girls and immediately pledged to at least provide equipment for the team, support races, and continued coaching to hopefully spread it to other provinces.
Shape: What’s it like to cycle with the girls? Has it changed since the first ride?
SG: The thing that has changed the most since I started riding with them for the first time is their skill progression. They’ve improved from being very unsteady, sometimes slowing down long enough to use their feet as breaks on the pavement to trusting their breaks. Seeing them ride together as a team is huge. Unfortunately, the rocks being thrown, the insults, the sling-shots—that hasn’t changed. And that’ll take a generation to change. This is a culture that has never supported women. For example, there are very few women that drive in Afghanistan. The few that do get the same reaction—that’s clearly independence, that’s clearly freedom, and that’s what’s so controversial and why men are reacting. These girls are incredibly brave, because they are on the front line literally changing culture.
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Shape: Do you feel like you’ve seen the confidence grow within them?
SG: Definitely. In fact, one girl told me a story about riding with her coach in the car supporting the team as they were riding, and all these men were insulting the girls when they pulled up to take a break. Right behind her had been a food cart that had fresh vegetables. She grabbed two huge handfuls of turnips and starting playfully beating one of the guys. That never would have happened before. An Afghan woman would never react. 'You just have to take it'—you hear that all the time. And that is huge that she did not just accept it.
Shape: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
SG: To listen more than you talk. That’s how you learn. The second biggest lesson is that when it comes to women’s right, we are unfortunately more similar than we are different. As an American woman, I have basic freedoms that many women around the world do not have. And yet, a lot of the issues that I see—that are more in the details—are quite similar. Women are blamed for how they dress if they are raped or attacked in the U.S. too, for example. We can’t brush this violence off as, ‘Well that’s happening in Afghanistan, because of course, it’s Afghanistan.’ No, it’s also happening in the backyards of Colorado.