Summit County woman pushes for education in Afghanistan
August 30, 2010
VAIL – Shannon Galpin, of Summit County, is the first woman to ride a bicycle in Afghanistan since the Taliban rose to power.
It was the ride of her life.
“It’s beautiful, especially in the north,” Galpin said. “It’s rolling hills covered with flowers and majestic mountains.”
It seems a small thing, rolling through the countryside, but it might be one of history’s most death-defying bike rides.
“If I were an Afghan woman, there would have rocks thrown at me,” Galpin said.
Galpin launched Mountain2Mountain in November 2006 after working two years in the mountains of Pakistan and Nepal. The goal is to help educate people in those places and war-torn Afghanistan, especially women.
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“I wanted to be part of helping build a country where girls don’t have acid thrown in their faces for going to school and women are not raped for teaching them,” Galpin said.
You have to pick your spots for things like symbolic bike rides, and Galpin’s spot in northern Afghanistan was relatively safe.
“It’s an area where we have a lot of projects,” Galpin said. “It was a calculated decision about what to do and where to do it.”
The Taliban was pushing into the region, but was driven back after 9/11 by U.S., Afghan and British troops and their allies. It’s relatively safe, compared to the rest of the country.
“We gently challenged that idea in a way where it was viewed with curiosity, not animosity,” she said.
But, despite Galpin’s trek, it’s still not acceptable for women to ride bikes.
Here’s the point.
“If we could get girls on bikes we would not have to build as many schools,” she said. “They could connect from greater distances.”
Education ensues, societies are changed as girls and women take Afghan society on the ride of its life.
Galpin’s Mountain2Mountain focuses on education in remote, war-torn regions where women’s oppression is the worst. A few weeks ago, Time magazine ran a cover photo of an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were sliced off by the Taliban after she fled abusive in-laws. It happens more often than anyone wants to believe.
Many organizations see building medical clinics and schools as their end goals.
Schools are good; education is better. They’re not the same thing. Building the school is first step, not the end goal.
“Education is the key, and building schools is a huge first step in that, but it’s one step,” Galpin said. “The end goal is an empowered community.”
In Afghanistan, most education happens in a Madrasah, which means “a place where learning/studying is done.”
Traditionally, a Madrasah is a religious school and its curriculum includes Islamic studies comparable to religious studies in an American private Christian school, Galpin said.
But the Taliban have gained control of several Madrasah, turning some into training academies in terrorism at the expense of education, Galpin said.
Kids finish those schools, but still cannot read or write. In Afghanistan, 87 percent of women are illiterate, and men are not much better off, Galpin said.
“Islamic studies will be in every school, but under the Taliban it was perverted,” Galpin said. “People who go to a fundamentalist Madrasah are being brainwashed.”
The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in America’s history, but the Afghan people have been at it for four decades – this time around.
Most of their problems stem from infrastructure destroyed by the wars.
“Most communities don’t have the money to run a school,” Galpin said. “There are not enough teachers and not enough doctors – not enough of anything.”
The root of all the conflicts, all over the world, boils down to poverty, and this one is no different.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan was part of the hippie trail. Tourism was big. But it was bombed back to the stone age when the wars began 40 years ago.
Military people tend to agree that development work is the key, Galpin said. They’ll provide security while Afghans help rebuild their country.
“We don’t want to still be there for the next 30 or 40 years,” Galpin said. “We want them to be able to govern themselves.”