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Post Taliban takeover: Riding a bike is out of the question for Afghan women

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, in the 1990s, the country seemed to take a step backward in time. The group banned television, for example. This time around, Taliban rule has made it hard for people to afford fuel, so some Afghans are swapping their cars for bicycles. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's late afternoon, and folks head home from work the usual ways - bus, taxi, car and motorbike.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES HONKING)

HADID: But weaving between them is a new kind of commuter.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

HADID: A fellow with a turban and vest dashes through openings between cars with files in his basket. Another in tattered clothes carts a giant bag of apples strapped to the back of his bike. Teenage boys in school uniforms whiz down the road, racing each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR RUNNING)

HADID: The commuters include 25-year-old Ahmad Fahim, who's pedaling home from his job as a radiologist. He scoots to the curb to talk to NPR producer Fazelminallah Qazizai.

AHMAD FAHIM: (Through interpreter) Most of my colleagues have bought bikes because the economy is so weak, and the fuel is expensive. Everyone's getting a bike.

HADID: Fahim says his salary was slashed last year because there just weren't that many paying patients. To save money, Fahim purchased a secondhand Chinese-made bike for $45. That's half his monthly wage. His situation is a small glimpse into how the economy has unraveled since the Taliban seized power in August last year. Western countries propping up the previous Afghan government halted their aid. Sanctions on Taliban leaders caused banking and trade to seize up. Then fuel and food prices rose after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The U.N. says most folks here are going hungry, and even those who are still working are feeling the squeeze. Afghans who might have taken a bus or a shared taxicab to get about the city are looking for something cheaper. And bike shops are doing a brisk trade, like the family operation run by 25-year-old Tawfik Shirzad. We meet him while he pumps the customer's deflated tires.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR PUMPING)

HADID: Shirzad says he used to sell bikes for kids and teenagers. Now most of his customers are adult men. He's never been busier.

TAWFIK SHIRZAD: (Through interpreter) But it makes me sad. When people buy a bike from me, it means their livelihood is in trouble. I can't be happy.

HADID: Shirzad's shop has rows of gleaming new bikes. Green, blue and red bells dangle from a ceiling hook. His customers want none of that. They're here for the row of secondhand bikes in the corner, clunkers imported from India and China, their prices ranging from $5 to $20.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR RUNNING)

HADID: On the streets, it's clear many cyclists are making do. Bikes are jerry-rigged together. Plastic crates are lashed on for baskets. Some headlights look enormous, like they've been taken from motorbikes. It's unclear how they wire them to work. Sidewalk booths for quick repairs have mushroomed through the city. One repair man complained that three other shops opened recently in his neighborhood, siphoning off business. Abdul Matin Amani's hole in the wall is one of those new repair shops.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIKE PART HITTING GROUND)

HADID: Amani gave up his taxi business because he couldn't afford to drive around anymore looking for customers.

ABDUL MATIN AMANI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says he learned to fix bikes in the mid-'90s, when the Taliban first seized power of Afghanistan.

AMANI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

AMANI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Back then, he says, Afghans also commuted by bike because the economy was in tatters. That first period of Taliban rule ended in 2001. And as the economy grew under the next two decades under Western-backed governments, Kabul's streets filled with cars and traffic jams. Fewer people were riding bikes.

But during that time, a growing number of Afghan women began cycling recreationally. They were pushing back on a notion in Afghan society that it was shameful for them to get on a bike - like 19-year-old Lama. We meet on a street and walk into a restaurant. She requests we don't use her full name because her family fears persecution at the hands of Taliban officials. She says she used to pedal her brother's bike around her Kabul neighborhood. She loved cycling in the rain.

LAMA: Riding a bicycle in the rain, it could really feel to me happy. So it was like a different world, different nature.

HADID: Now riding a bike is out of the question. The Taliban have told women to cover up and stay home.

LAMA: When you see other men can do that and you can't do that, it feels like injustice. It really hurts.

HADID: And while Lama knows all the men now riding bikes is a sign of economic ruin, for her, it's another reminder of all the things women can't do in the Taliban's Afghanistan.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.