If you were to drop in the Skateistan Skate Hall in Kabul, Afghanistan, it would not be rare to see groups of female skateboarders skating freely, dominating the half-pipes, quarter-pipes, and expansive wood floors.
Though women and girls are forbidden from driving cars, participating in most organized sports, and still have to fight to attend school and obtain jobs in the country, right now, 40% of all skateboarders in Afghanistan are female, and skateboarding is the largest female sport in the country.
But seven years ago, when TEDxSydney‘s Oliver Percovich moved to Kabul from Australia, the sport was not such a phenomenon. In 2007, the Australian skateboarder packed his things (and his skateboard) and moved to the city when his girlfriend started a job as a researcher there, he explains in a talk at TEDxSydney.
“I’ve been a skateboarder since I was six years old,” he says in his talk, “so wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve always brought my skateboard with me. And Kabul was no exception.”
What was different about Kabul, however, he says, was the attention he got from strangers when he rode his skateboard on city streets. “[People] were fascinated,” he says, “Both boys and girls wanted to try out the skateboard.” And while he knew that Afghan girls were treated differently than boys before he moved to the city, the disparity truly struck him when he made Kabul his home.
“There’s a lot of young people in Afghanistan,” he says in his talk, “… and it really shocked me to see the role women played in society. Most women didn’t have jobs. Most girls didn’t go to school. There weren’t any women drivers on the road. There weren’t any girls riding bicycles because it was deemed culturally inappropriate. All of the popular sports were seen as activities just for boys, not for girls.”
Yet, despite the restrictions on girls’ behavior, Percovich noticed that no one stopped his friends when they taught girls and young women to skate with the skateboards Percovich had brought from Australia.
“I thought to myself, ‘How is it possible that I’ve been skateboarding with girls in the street, but they’re not allowed to play these other sports?’” he says in his talk, “and I realized, skateboarding was a loophole. It was so new that no one had had a chance to say girls couldn’t do it.”
So Percovich took advantage of the loophole and started Skateistan, an organization that provides opportunities for girls (and boys) to learn how to skate, regardless of race, social class, or economic status. The organization hosts classes in skateboarding, creative arts, and other topics, works to help refugee and working children prepare to re-enter school, and gives girls access to education, the arts, and a sport to call their own — skateboarding.
They opened the city’s first indoor skatepark in 2009, founded to host their skate classes and provide young skaters a safe space to continue to skate, without intrusion or restriction.
“When somebody sees a picture of a young girl in Afghanistan on a big ramp,” Percovich says, “and she’s dropping in, and she’s achieved something that she thought was impossible, she becomes the subject of respect, not pity — in those people’s eyes.”
Watch Percovich’s whole TEDxSydney talk below: