Afghanistan girls take to skateboarding
It is December 2010, and Kabul has surrendered to winter as snow-capped mountains besiege this valley city. Most homes in Afghanistan are poorly heated by kerosene or wood heaters and the bone-chilling cold grips your soul and is slow to let go.
Movement, it seems, is the only economical relief from the bitterly cold, long winter months. For a group of young Afghan skateboarders, moving is all they seem to be doing these days at Afghanistan's first -- and only -- skate park through a program called Skateistan.
Inside, kids zoom by after rolling cautiously down the ramps that line the park. Girls in flowing long shirts and pants glide along the smooth indoor terrain, giggling as they try to keep their balance on their boards.
Skateistan is the brain-child of Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan, two Australian natives who moved to Kabul in 2007. Both are avid skateboarders who wanted to continue skating in their new home.
So Nolan and Percovich set out to discover Kabul on their skateboards. It was a peculiar sight, you can imagine, for Afghans. In the early days, and now still, many Afghans were unaccustomed to seeing skateboards. Out of confusion, locals started calling them "little cars with four wheels," said Max Hanniger, Skateistan's deputy director.
Skateboarding was rarely, if ever, done in Afghanistan, and it certainly was not an activity for girls. However, as the local youth watched the two Aussies in awe, they were not content to sit on the sidelines. Boys and girls demanded to learn how to skate, too.
The program started with informal skate lessons on the streets of Kabul. Fazila Shreendil is one of the park's most veteran and accomplished female skaters. Now 14, she joined the group in 2007, when she was only 11 and selling small goods on the streets to survive.
"When I was selling gum I saw them skating and I wanted to learn," Shreendil said. "I thought, 'This is great, I really like this,' so I decided that I wanted to skate, too."
But convincing parents to allow their daughters, including Shreendil, to participate in the early days of street skating sessions proved to be a difficult task. Organizers faced a barrage of questions from parents who neither understood the sport nor the need for their daughters to participate.
In conservative Afghanistan, some still frown upon girls participating in sports. Permission often comes with a number of stipulations, paramount of which is having a safe, female-only practice environment.
"The idea of building the skate park was actually because of the girls," said Sophie Friedel, Skatiestan's HR manager and a female skate coach. "Oliver and Sharna noticed the girls coming and then after a certain age they weren't allowed to play outside anymore, so the decision was made to provide them with an inside facility so the girls can participate in sports."
Parents visited the public skate area, and later the park, to ensure their daughters were skating in a female-only environment. New challenges continue to arise as the girls mature. Parents begin to worry about what others might think of their daughter's recreational activity, particularly as they approach their late teens.
"Now both my parents are saying not to [go to the park]," Shreendil said. "They say, 'Now you are older, you shouldn't skate,' but I tell them that I really love skating."
Yet, despite their reluctance, she continues to skate.
Since that first day when Percovich and Nolan ventured on their skateboards through the bustling Kabul streets, the program has seen growth in the number of youth flocking to the skate park, as well as in the financial support to the organization.
"It was super difficult to get going," Hanniger said. "In 2008, we had no money at all, we had $8,000 to run the whole project, and that only consisted of public skate sessions."
With support from various local and international donors as well as the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee, which donated land for the skate park, Skateistan moved into its first indoor facility in October 2009. The facility provides formal skate and classroom sessions for more than 300 kids, ages 5 to 17, 120 of whom are girls and now members of the program.
The park is nestled on the Ghazi Stadium grounds, which is the site of Afghanistan's National Stadium and gymnasiums for basketball and volleyball. There is ample space for the skaters, with several large ramps scattered throughout the converted airplane hangar. There is also space for Skateistan's offices, a cafeteria and two classrooms for daily English, writing and computer classes. Skateistan has not only become a recreational hub for the skaters, but an educational one as well.
In a country ravaged by decades of war, Skateistan is truly revolutionary. It is helping to push the boundaries of gender archetypes, and its popularity with the youth of Kabul is symbolic of their desire to transform their lives, both inside and outside the skate park.
In spite of some of the challenges faced by the young girls outside of the park, they continue to skate, eager to write a new chapter in Afghan women's sports history.