Mountain to Mountain Author Shannon Galpin on Bicycles and Violence Against Women

Breckenridge resident, women's right activist and avid cyclist Shannon Galpin (whose adventures we featured in the July 2012 cover story, "Peak Performance") has quite the story to tell in her just-released autobiographical tale, Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan, which chronicles the launch of her nonprofit organization, Mountain2Mountain, and her strange path as an advocate for women bicyclists in Afghanistan. She'll sign Mountain to Mountain at 7 p.m. on Monday, October 6, at the Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street, and on Wednesday, October 8, at 7:30 p.m. at Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street in Boulder. In advance of those appearances, we chatted with Galpin about how she wound up riding mountain bikes in Afghanistan and how her own experiences with violence as a woman help her connect with other women.

See also: Ten places to ride your bike this summer

Westword: How did you first become interested in bicycling?

Shannon Galpin: I did not become a mountain biker until I came to Colorado. I love bikes, and I lived in Europe for quite a long time -- that's probably what solidified my love of biking and forest roads, getting a coffee and biking home, that sort of commuter culture was amazing. Mountain biking was what I fell in love with when I moved to Breckenridge and discovered it in 2007.

What was it like taking your bike to Afghanistan?

It was a country where women have never been allowed to ride bikes. Getting girls on bikes and creating a revolution wasn't something I was looking to do. I simply wanted to explore the country on two wheels because I love mountain biking; I was working in these mountainous provinces and wanted to challenge that gender barrier and knew that I could do that as a foreign woman and have that conversation about why it's so controversial. "As other areas of life are opened up for woman, why is cycling still so taboo?" Really, it was just a way to challenge that barrier and ask questions.

So what was the reaction when you began riding your bike, and how did you manage that reaction?

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My biggest worry was obviously not offending anyone, but I knew I was doing something different. The reaction was a combination of being flabbergasted, mouths open, double-take -- and then the men and boys would want to ride my bike. I had Afghan soldiers ride my bike, it's kind of this amazing icebreaker. And because they're so surprised and caught off-guard, it would take down those normal barriers or social norms of talking to a strange woman in the street. These were very rural villages and communities. So it instead opened up these conversations about who I was, who they were, what was I doing there, what was my work, and then I could ask very frankly, "Would you let your daughter, your sister, your wife ride a bike?" Without any controversy or judgement but just asking them.

And how did the women react to your bike?

I've been really cautious because women riding bikes is so taboo, on the morality scale it's ranked as one small step below morality crimes that woman are jailed for. It's more controversial than driving or running for public office. I did not myself encourage women to ride bikes in the beginning. So I made sure Afghan women were making those choices, and once they did, I supported them, but I never was like, "Let's start a bike club or teach women in the village to ride." They are the ones taking the risk.

But once I discovered the Women's National Cycling Team of Afghanistan that started, I gave them my full support and have been working with and coaching them. And as there have been little pockets of women who perhaps learned to ride in other countries and are teaching girls in their village to ride bikes. It's still a handful of girls, but when I'm able to find those little pockets, I try and support them as well so that if they're going to take those risks, it's on their terms and it's seen as Afghan and not as Western. But I also look at how I can help mitigate the risks and give them every opportunity to be safe, if that's at all possible. Keep reading for more from Shannon Galpin.

Would you say that part of the reason you devoted so much of your life to the women of Afghanistan is because you've also experienced violence as a woman? Do you think that it helped you connect with the women you met there? And what was it like to write about it?

I think that in my case, it's slightly different in that my experience happened when I was eighteen, and I started Mountain2Mountain when I was 31. I never saw myself as a victim -- in fact, to a fault. When I started Mountain2Mountain, I didn't consider my own attack as having anything to do with moving this vision forward. I was pregnant with my daughter when my only sister was raped in college. I realized for the first time how helpless I was to keep her safe -- we're ten years apart -- and how helpless I would be in the same respect to keeping my daughter safe. It was more coming from that feeling of helplessness in that the world needs to change, and the world needs to change in terms of how we view women and how we treat women and how we deal with the prevalence of gender violence.

But it's kind of twofold. I think you have to be very cautious of using any exercise in terms of creating a nonprofit organization and working with women as a means to heal yourself. You need to heal yourself first, you need to be able to be objective and not operate solely out of your own experience, and yet I know that while I never talk about my experience when I'm in Afghanistan because that's not part of my work -- my work is to work with them, hear them and bear witness to them, which means I have to be strong enough to do that -- it also means that when I'm able to hear those stories, the benefit is that I'm incredibly empathetic. I understand what they have been through probably more than someone else would. And while I'm very conscious that my job is not to share my story, my job is to hear theirs and help them, it makes me uniquely situated to understand what they feel and what they're going through.

And certainly by writing the book, and now when I'm speaking and I talk about gender violence, being able to say without it being the theme, to be able to say that I am one of those stats and so is my only sister, can humanize the issue. And really shockingly, what I've discovered and it will probably happen more with the book, is many women will come up to me after I speak and come up to me and say, "I just want to say thank you for sharing, I'm a victim, too." I think there's something very cathartic. Yes, this happened; no it doesn't have to define you, and if you can speak your own truth and present yourself, warts and all, then you're that much stronger for it.

I look at it this way. My rape was incredibly violent; I was almost killed. If I'd been mugged at gunpoint or robbed in the streets, I would never have been quiet about it. It's the sexual nature of it, whether that's sexual harassment or domestic abuse or rape, it's so intimate and personal that we are not speaking about it, and therefore it continues to happen. That might be the silver lining to talking about it.

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