BY: JESSICA BEUKER
Afghanistan is considered the most dangerous country in the world for women. This is due to a number of threats including: health issues, violence and economic discrimination. It’s a country where over 50 percent of the population is under 16, and many youth work in the streets selling chewing gum or washing cars. Young girls have it especially hard, as they are not allowed to participate in many activities because they are deemed culturally inappropriate. According to Bustle, girls are not allowed to ride bicycles, play soccer or volleyball, fly kites or participate in the country’s national sport, buzkashi, because those things are considered to be only for boys. It’s within this oppressive environment that a new form of liberation has been opened—skateboarding, now the largest female sporting organization in the country, and a source of young female empowerment.
In 2007 Australian skateboarder, Oliver Percovich, moved to Afghanistan after his girlfriend accepted a job there. One of the first things he noticed was the lack of educational, recreational and work opportunities afforded to local women and girls. With that in mind he created Skateistan, an NGO based in Kabul that aims to empower young children, especially young girls, and serve as a gateway to greater education. Skateboarding also provides them with a great source of physical exercise.
“When I saw it was possible for young girls to skateboard in the streets, this was a huge surprise,” Percovich said in an interview with Bustle. “I realized that this was a loophole. Since skateboarding was brand new to the country, nobody had had a chance to say girls couldn’t do it. It’s not seen as a thing or a sport for males because no one really knew about it. We simply do it.”
Skateistan offers classes for both boys and girls, but the majority of the students are female. The boys and girls classes happen on different days of the week and the girls classes are all taught by female instructors. The students range in age from five to 17 and are given access to safe transportation to and from the skating facilities.
A large part of the Skateistan program focuses on education. According to Bustle, only 13 per cent of young women in Afghanistan are literate and only 36 per cent receive any education at all. In order to combat this, Skateistan has created a ‘Back to School’ program, where 800 students come in each week, eventually covering three years of schooling in 12 months. Skateistan also has a leadership program that aims to have the facilities run by local teachers, skateboarders and students, so the jobs are created from within.
The program also reaches out to children of all backgrounds, regardless of status. Children who have been displaced in camps, to those considered middle-class and those who work on the streets—all are brought together so they can interact and bond, and minimize socioeconomic barriers.
While the program has already spread to Cambodia and South Africa, Percovich plans to expand to more at-risk countries and cities. According to Bustle, his goal is to “bring skateboards, education, role models, and overall female empowerment to young girls throughout the world.” Photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson travelled to Afghanistan to capture the essence of this empowerment. In an interview with The Guardian she describes the moments that she captured: while timid and nervous to begin with, the girls launch down the ramps so fast that they become swirls of colour—free and liberated and full of pride.