Rita Leistner on freedom and biking in Kabul

 Cyclist in Kabul in the winter of 2011.

 Photos and text by Rita Leistner

I took these photographs of cyclists in Kabul, Afghanistan, in February 2011 outside the front gate of the house where I was renting a room from an American journalist. A few weeks into my stay, a shop owner from across the street called the police to report that she was operating a brothel. How else could you explain women living alone and men (other journalists, translators and fixers, laundry service) coming and going? The hired Afghan security guard, who had become a friend, threw punches defending our honour.

When most people think about women’s rights, the first thing they think about probably isn’t the freedom to ride a bike. Most people might think that is the least important thing on the list. But for people like me, and probably anyone who reads a magazine like dandyhorse, the freedom to ride a bike is something we can hardly imagine being without. Like most Canadian girls, I remember my first bike; I remember my dad running alongside me on the street in front our house on Lynvalley Crescent in Scarborough, holding onto me then letting go and then that incomparable feeling of finding my balance and for the first time, training-wheels-free, what once seemed impossible was suddenly at my fingertips, and in an instant I saw my whole future ahead of me; self-propelled. Nothing could stop me now.

I’ve never ridden in a bike race or across Canada, or done anything particularly spectacular on a bike; I can’t even ride “no hands.” But I was a bike courier during my first two years of University (back in the early 80s before it was “cool”) and for a few years I was pretty seriously into mountain biking. I’ve always especially loved riding in a snow storm—which, as most city winter riders know, is when cars drive more slowly or simply stay off the roads altogether, ironically making it somewhat safer for cyclists.

One of my first photo essays was called “Bikes Are Better than Boys.” It was a series in black and white of my hand-built Mandrake mountain bike performing “domestic tasks” like washing dishes and reading a book lying next to me in bed. I made it after my boyfriend and mountain bike riding partner left me for his old girlfriend back in British Columbia. It was the first time I’d really had my heart broken and an important turning point in my life. I turned to photography, which until then I’d only thought of as a hobby, with new vigour. Actually, I’d been inspired by that same boyfriend who—aside from being into mountain biking and breaking my heart—also happened to be a pretty good photographer. Soon after, I quit my job as a technical writer for an engineering firm, bought an old Volkswagen Rabbit, threw my bike in the back and drove to Mexico. When I came back to Toronto ten months later I turned down a pending PhD acceptance and got a job in the film business. When I wasn’t working on film sets, I was riding my bike through the streets of Toronto at night taking photographs. I had an exhibition at Ted’s Collision on College street I called “A Camera, A Bicycle and a Tripod.”

When I first arrived in Baghdad in 2003 as a photojournalist I found a female fixer (a local who helps translate and set up interviews, among other things) willing to ride around the city with me. I bought a decent, inexpensive city bike for each of us, but our riding fun didn’t last long. Less than a year after the invasion it became too dangerous—not because of the war, but because women’s freedom to move around in public was already being severely curtailed as radical groups gained power in the vacuum left behind by the toppled regime. We watched powerlessly as a city that had once been one of the most progressive for women—for much of the 20th century Iraq had one of the highest levels of education of women in the world—bit by bit came under the control of misogynist extremist groups bent on oppressing women in the name of their particular excuses for doing whatever they wanted. Thana, my fixer who’d ridden around Bagdad with me on a bicycle, was mortified. “They will have to kill me first,” she’d said of the prospect of spending the rest of her life cloaked in an abaya (full head to toe covering). She moved to Bahrain soon after.

This is how it works: women must be veiled from head to toe whenever they are in public. Well, you can’t run or ride a bike in one of these garments, so, obviously, riding a bike is completely off the table. In warmer weather in Kabul you’ll see boys and men riding around on bicycles while women shuffle by cloaked in flowing fabric. Men, wearing trousers, walking about, enjoying something so simple, something we think of as so commonplace as riding a bicycle – is off limits to women.

We read a lot about the rules of modestly associated with covering women’s bodies. Not incidentally, many women who wear modesty cloaks and veils also wear mobility impeding high-heeled shoes. It’s always seemed a little hypocritical to me that there were no rules against “sexy shoes” in cultures where women could not show their legs and arms or heads. But actually it makes perfect sense: The idea is also (or perhaps primarily) to prevent mobility and physical independence and freedom.

I never take riding a bike for granted. It has always been connected for me to deep feelings of freedom and independence and self-determination. dandyhorse readers will know what I mean. Every child who has ever learned to ride a bike knows exactly what I mean. Like riding a bike, it’s a feeling you never forget.

And so, that unusually snowy day in Kabul when I might have been thinking of loftier, more politically newsy things, I was standing in a puddle of slush, taking pictures, cloaked from head to toe, wishing I could doff my veil, hop on a bike and ride off into the snow.

~ Rita Leistner on January 3, 2015, from Beer Sheva, Israel

Cyclists in Kabul during a snowy February in 2011.

Photos by Rita Leistner.



Rita Leistner was embedded in 2011 with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan as a team member of the experimental social media initiative Basetrack. After the embed she spent several weeks in Kabul uploading images to the Basetrack website. In 2014 she published a book called Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan about her experience working with social media and smartphones in the context of a military embed in Afghanistan.  “I arrived home from Afghanistan with a smartphone full of photographs and a bad case of the blues. Looking for McLuhan, who I knew almost nothing about, began as a kind of prophylactive therapy to keep me from sliding into full-blown depression."

From the website for the book, http://www.lookingformarshallmcluhan.com: "The medium is the message in this playful and philosophical trans-media crossover book about smartphones, language, photography and war. Rita Leistner, who has an MA in comparative literature from the University of Toronto and is a graduate of the International Center of Photography in New York, uses the optics of literary criticism to create a bridge between the literary and the photographic, between “writing” and “writing with light” to propose a theory toward understanding this moment in history when smartphones and war first collide.” Rita is also the co-author of Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq and has contributed to numerous other books of and about photography. She teaches the history of photojournalism at the University of Toronto and rides her mountain bike all year round.

These photos do not appear in the book.

Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan, is available from the University of Chicago Press. Order a copy at your favourite local bookstore, or look for it on Amazon.

For more information: http://www.lookingformarshallmcluhan.com/ and http://ritaleistner.com/

Related on the dandyBLOG:
Evalyn Parry's SPIN: The story of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to traverse the globe by bicycle
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