In a country where women are strongly discouraged from driving, and it’s taboo for girls to play sports or even ride bicycles, the humble skateboard has become the ultimate empowerment loophole.
“All of the popular sports were seen just as activities for boys, not for girls,” says Oliver Percovich, who first brought skateboarding to Kabul when he arrived in 2007. “And I thought, ‘How is it possible that I’ve been skateboarding with [Afghan] girls in the street, but they’re not allowed to play these other sports?’. Then I realised, skateboarding was a loophole. It was so new that nobody had had a chance to say that girls couldn’t do it yet.”
After his father passed away, now- social scientist Oliver, who mainly grew up in Papua New Guinea, finished school while living in a hostel; then made his way to Europe. By the time he arrived in Afghanistan, he’d set foot in 40 countries – but had no job, and little to his name other than a few skateboards. He spent his days skating through the streets of Kabul, and began drawing attention from locals who had never seen a skateboard before. Young girls and boys who worked on the streets were particularly fascinated by the foreigner gliding past on a plank of wood attached to some wheels.
Despite the language barrier, Oliver saw the opportunity to engage local youth and so, with his five or so boards, started running skate sessions in an old dried-up fountain for the next 18 months. Middle-class children who lived in the surrounding Soviet-era apartments suddenly found common ground with kids who spent their days begging or shining shoes, particularly the girls, who were “a bit rough and ready… to jump on a skateboard and try something out”.
“The first two weeks, it was really all boys and the girls were sort of standing in the background, but over time they inched closer and closer to where we were skateboarding, and then one or two really brave girls would try to skateboard as well,” says Oliver. “There was a group of probably around 10 girls and about 40 or 50 boys. Because I gave equal time to the boys and the girls, and there were more boys turning up than girls, the girls got way better than the boys because they simply had more time on the skateboard.”
By the time Oliver began running competitions, girls were taking out every age group under 12. “It definitely helped, being a brand new sport that nobody had seen, because it then started to be seen as a sport for girls. It was like, ‘ah, there’s skateboarding. That’s a girls’ sport’, because there wasn’t any sort of cultural baggage that came along with it. They didn’t even know that in most of the world, most skateboarders are boys, because we didn’t show any magazines or videos or pictures… it was just like, ‘Here is a board with four wheels, and in Afghanistan this is what girls do’.”
When the parents of then-12-year-old Fazila, one of the poorest girls attending Oliver’s skateboarding sessions, took her out of school so she could beg full-time, Oliver made the first link between skateboarding and education. He and one of Skateistan’s local workers approached Fazila’s parents to pitch a radical idea: could Fazila be a skateboard instructor and earn an income that way? And, if she had this job, would they allow her to go back to school? Her parents agreed.
In a country where almost half the population is under the age of 15 (the most school-aged children per capita of any nation in the world), Oliver committed to the idea of skateboarding as a conduit for education and, in 2009, launched Skateistan with the tagline ‘Youth come for skateboarding, and stay for education’ in Kabul. Skateistan has since kicked off a program in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan – where it built the two largest indoor sports facilities in the country – and has also expanded globally, creating the world’s first mobile ramp carried on the back of a tuk tuk – in Cambodia. In 2016, they built and opened the Skateistan Skate School in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The programs have long-lasting benefits with many older children, who like Fazila, go on to become instructors. One former street kid, Nozai, who carried around “probably not-so-accurate” scales and weighed patrons for five cents a pop, became a sports coordinator at the Mazar-e-Sharif complex and is now enrolled in law at university.
“The skateboarding community doesn’t really care where you come from, whether you’re from Bangladesh or from Iceland or whatever,” says Oliver. “It’s like, ‘What tricks can you do? Who are you as a person?’. It really doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin [is] or what your religion is or what your background is. Skateboarders have always been pretty good at actually jumping over those sort of barriers that most people in society have big hang-ups with.”
Globally, five per cent of skateboarders are girls, but Skateistan has seen that number soar to above 40 per cent in Afghanistan; skateboarding is now the largest female sport in Afghanistan. However the organisation is still “very careful” about letting on that girls in other countries aren’t as well-represented on half-pipes and skate ramps as they are in Afghanistan, and Skateistan is still at the mercy of its unique location.
On September 8, 2012, four Skateistan students who had been selling trinkets to soldiers were killed in a suicide attack outside an international military base. But the Skateistan community rallied, supporting the families with food and wood for heating, while the children’s graves were even dug by one of the skating instructors. Two weeks later, the younger brother of one of those kids was back skating, with the arena and community it fosters serving as his safe space.
For Skateistan’s students, the pleasures are simple. One of the previous students, Freshta, says it best: “I love it because it feels like I’m flying, like a bird. It gives me the feeling of freedom.”
Read the full Skateistan story in Issue 41, out now.