The world isn’t always kind when you’re a girl – and it can be especially mean if you’re growing up in Afghanistan, a country ranked as one of the worst to be born a woman. But the tough-as-nails girls of Skateistan aren’t holding still for social convention. Actually, they’re zooming by it on their skateboards and waving a farewell to everyone and anyone who says, “Girls can’t do that.”
Skateistan is a non-profit skating school founded by Australian-born Oliver Percovich, who moved to the conservative Asian nation in 2007. Two years later he launched the skating school with the goal to empower and educate the often impoverished and disenfranchised street kids of Afghanistan — a large number of whom happen to be girls. Girls who are often denied access to education and athletics because those are things best reserved for “boys.” Girls discouraged from doing everything from bike riding to flying kites but who have nonetheless found freedom in skating.
Today Skateistan is going strong, and has built the two biggest indoor sporting facilities in Afghanistan and also happens to be the largest female sporting organization in the country (though boys are welcome to Skateistan too). Skateistan has done a ton to help its female participants. Communications director Rhianon Bader told ABC News, “We’ve done everything to make our program culturally appropriate to reach as many girls as possible. In Afghanistan, girls can only be around other girls, so we host all-girls classes taught only by female teachers. We have a separate safe facility for them and provide free, safe transportation for them.”
The girls in the community are thrilled be the opportunity. One teenager Nelofar, told Vice who recently profiled Skatistan, that skateboarding makes her feel “very brave and very strong.” The 19-year-old added, “I like the 360 flip, that’s very amazing.”
Nelofar’s family, including her father and brothers, are supportive of her skateboarding even if society as a whole isn’t too keen on it yet. But having the support of the men in her life can only further empower her to keep going all-in for what she loves.
Another girl, Mursal told Vice, “Before I came to Skateistan, life was so boring for me. Every day I went to work, selling chewing gum. Then an idea came to my mind: Only working cannot build my future.” That’s some pretty heavy stuff to be contemplating at 10-years-old but now that Mursal has found skateboarding, it’s easy to see she’s also finding she can do more than work a gum selling job. She can be passionate, she can be bold, and she can achieve.
If you still don’t really see how skateboarding can lead these girls into a more successful future, just look at 16-year-old Madina Saidy, who was able to travel to Colombia as a representative for Skateistan at the U.N. Habitat’s World Urban Forum.
“It’s amazing to see a girl from Afghanistan who has been working since 8 years old to come this far,” Bader told ABC News about Saidy. “She basically taught herself English, and now she’s an amazing role model and leader who has even flown internationally.”
Another Skateistan participant, Madina Khsrawy, joined Skateistan at 13 and by 16 was serving as a youth leader within the school – something she couldn’t have envisioned for herself only three years before. “I could not tell myself I am intelligent, but [those at Skateistan] told me I was intelligent and I should become a leader.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Skateistan. In 2012, the school was hit by a suicide bomber and four of its students were killed, including two young girls. But it’s since bounced back and has yet to be discouraged from its mission to teach these badass little ladies that they can do whatever they set their minds on.
“These kids are trying to break the shackles of old mentalities in Kabul,” founder Percovich told the BBC in 2012. “They are not scared. If they hadn’t come after me every day, I would’ve left a long time ago.” It’s not just a desire to help these kids that keeps Skateistan going, it’s that drive of the students that keep people like Percovich present, engaged and focused on the mission.
The future of both Skateistan and the girls who have found a place to express themselves within its enclosed park, can only be bright. Support has been flowing in and American skateboarding legend Tony Hawk even praised the girl-powered skating school for being more “progressive than we have here” in the U.S.
“The kids rip, what can I say, you know,” Hawk told ABC. “They have this facility and they have the motivation and they learn very quickly.”
Skateistan also has programming in South Africa and Cambodia. What can we say? We just think this is dope.