SHAFAQNA -Â These nine elite athletes have broken barriers and records in a variety of sports such as swimming, mountain climbing and soccer. But for some, cycling is a brand-new experience. They are riding on a team with the Persian name Shirzanan, or “female heroes.”
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world,” the American civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony famously wrote in 1886. “I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike.”
Nearly 130 years later,Â Shirzanan Global,Â a media platform empowering Muslim female athletes, is using the same vehicle to turn the wheels of sport history for Muslim women. Its goal is unrestricted access for Muslim women to physical activities and sports in any country.
Nine Muslim athletes on July 19 joined about 20,000 cyclists on a seven-day non-competitive ride organized by The Des Moines Register. They are participating as part ofÂ Team Shirzanan. In Persian, Shirzanan means “female heroes.”
The nine women play sports on a pro, semi-pro, Olympic and amateur basis. They are mountain climbers, swimmers, snowboarders, basketball players, martial artists and cyclists. Two are U.S. citizens and the others are from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt.
In their home countries, most face cultural and religious sports restrictions. It was only at the last Olympic Games, in 2012, that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei entered female athletes, while in IranÂ women are still kept away from stadiums.
Some on the team learned to ride a bike in order to participate in the event, whichÂ crosses Iowa from west to east, and concludes on July 25, and is called theÂ Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, orRAGBRAI.
First Time Cycling
Others onÂ Team Shirzanan, such as Kiran Khan, a 24-year-old Olympic swimmer from Pakistan, never rode a bike in her home country.
In a phone interview, Khan said she started practicing cycling at the gym after the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, which ended July 17, just two days before the start of the race.
Khan competed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and is the youngest athlete to win the nation’s Medal of Excellence. Today, at a swimming center in Lahore, Khan is training a young generation of girls and teens to swim competitively.
Mara Gubuan is co-founder of Shirzanan Global. In a phone interview from Iowa, Gubuan said the nine elite athletes were chosen for their commitment to empower women through sports in their respective countries.
Raha Moharrak, for instance,Â in 2013 became the first Saudi woman and youngest Arab to climb Mount Everest. In a phone interview from Iowa, Moharrak said she had to learn to ride a bike to prepare for theRAGBRAI.
“I lived in Saudi Arabia till college, that is why I never learned how to ride a bike. It’s not acceptable for women to ride a bike there,” she said.
Moharrak now lives in Dubai where she works as a freelance art director and is finishing a MBA in women’s leadership. Before flying to Iowa, she borrowed a bike from a friend to practice. “I was trying not to hit any parked cars in the parking lot under my building,” she told Women’s eNews.
Fight for Better Health
For girls and women in countries that restrict their physical freedom, sports isn’t just about overcoming legal and cultural restrictions. It’s also a matter of fighting for better health.
Researchers have found that physical restrictions in Saudi Arabia expose women and girls to a slew of medical dangers, including vitamin D deficiency, breast cancer, obesity and depression, asÂ Women’s eNewsreported earlier this year.
As an active member of Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team, Hajar Abulfazil, another member ofTeam Shirzanan, has competed at Kabul Stadium, the same place where the Taliban used to carry out executions during the late 1990s.
After three decades of war that has often imposed new dangers and restrictions on women, Abulfazil, in an email interview, said it isÂ difficult to change local attitudes and make it easier for women to study, work outside the home and play sports. Cultural restrictions, economic hardship and the threat of violent attack all stand in the way.
But even though it’s highly unusual for a woman to ride a bike in Kabul, Abulfazil was up for the challenge when Gubuan asked her to joinÂ Team ShirzananÂ in Iowa.
“When Mara told me about this program I was so happy,” Abulfazil said. “And I said to myself it’s one way I can change something for women and the rights of women in Afghanistan. If I can change one mind about sport and women I think I did my job.”
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