"I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of
untrammelled womanhood." – Susan B Anthony, 1896
I want to talk about bicycles. But first, we hear Jesus say repeatedly, “Fear not little flock…Do not be afraid…Let not your hearts be troubled.” Then we have three reported mass shootings in one week and reports that people are becoming increasingly afraid to shop, go to school, or even go to church.
A few days later this appears in my Facebook feed from a former student when I was at St Timothy’s School for Girls, Fatima Haidari from Afghanistan: “‘No, I am not really scared. It is Kabul, you never know when it’s your time,’ Abeda, one of our students, said today seconds after the explosion in district-3, Kabul; around 1 mile away from Asef-e-mayel High School where our art module was taking place. “You know something is very very wrong with a city when mass murder is normalized for it’s elementary kids. This picture [of children doing an art project] was taken a few minutes before we had to rush through the broken glass in the school hallway, and me answering back to back calls from horrified parents to assure them their kid survived the explosion. 5th day of STEAM Camp Kabul. [Science Technology Engineering Arts Math]”
Something is very very wrong. Consider, this fall’s collection of student backpacks includes options like bulletproof panels, and mass murder is normalized for elementary, middle school, high school, college kids and adults – especially adults of various specific ethnic and religious groups. It seems impossible not to have troubled hearts until we remember that Jesus says, “Fear not,” amidst equally turbulent and violent life under the military occupation and oppressive rule of Rome. Crucified victims of the Empire lined the roadways as reminders of who is in charge.
So, just how do we move forward without being paralyzed by both the targeted and indiscriminate violence that pervades daily life? The writer of the treatise we call Hebrews in the eleventh chapter points to Faith: “Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.” The text goes on to highlight a long list of people like Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Sampson, David, the prophets among them – all of whom faced violence, catastrophe and trouble; all of whom had the vision to press forward toward the promise of a better future, a more just future, a safer and more secure future in God’s promise. Now what is missing, of course, in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews are the names of women of faith who are many: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Ruth, Mary….and the list can go on and on. In the midst of our nation’s current pandemic of violence and ongoing violence in places like Afghanistan, my faith is shored-up and strengthened to hear that one of Fatima’s young students can live out exactly what Jesus is talking about and say, “No, I’m not really scared…you never know when it is your time.” This is the kind of faith Hebrews means to commend. [David Steindl-Rast, OSB, reminds us that sundials in old monasteries bore one of two inscriptions: memento mori, or memento vivere – remember you will die/remember to live – and that there is really no difference between these two admonitions. In Speaking of Silence, Paulist Press, p. 24]
For faith is not some kind of personal internal belief. It is not a platitude about belief, but a highly provocative claim that faith itself moves in the direction of the realization of those things that are presently beyond demonstration. Like the young student in Kabul, we all know the end-game. Faith is the choice to continue to live despite our known end, and despite all current circumstances. Hebrews asserts that in faith those of us whom Jesus tells to “Fear Not” already anticipate the final outcome, the final reality of the very vision of life lived as God calls us to live: loving God and loving neighbor – which means justice and peace for all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.
As I read Fatima’s report about life in Kabul I had two thoughts. One was that presently we all live in Kabul – we all increasingly face similar if not the same circumstances. I also recalled an earlier episode in Fatima’s life. While home one summer she recalled how much fun it was as a child to ride her bike. As she got older the Taliban had restricted women from most modes of transportation, and even required them to remain in the home. After Taliban rule was suspended things improved, but women riding bicycles is still rare. With help and support from Girl Up, a group from the UN Foundation that advocates for girls around the world, Fatima began a girl’s cycling club. It is not uncommon for a woman to be taunted and scolded for riding a bicycle in public in Kabul, but Fatima believed that it would be freeing and empowering to have a once a week bicycle ride through the city. But it is about more than biking. “We're trying to push women to have equal presence in society, and biking is just part of it,” she says.
Now twenty girls strong, they ride through the streets together. There have been incidents, like the time one girl was pushed off her bike – in front of the Ministry of Education. Recalls Fatima, “It was right in front of the Ministry of Education, where there were guards. And they didn't do anything! The Ministry of Education is supposed to inform people about human rights and that women should use their freedom. But the guards were just staring. It was really ironic that there was nobody to protect us — or at least to call the person out.”
The next week, however was different. “On our second group bike ride in Darlaman, an old man stopped us. To be honest, all of us were scared, but he told us: ‘You girls raise Afghanistan’s flag. Foreigners will change their minds about Afghanistan when they see you biking around. Let me tell you something, I am in charge of that park right there and I am not allowed to let bicycles inside, but today is a good day, and I am proud of you so I can make an exception!’”
Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen. Here is an example of such faith when an 18 year-old girl could see the future for herself, for other women and for her country. “I hope one day the domination of one sex in an activity stops, because a society really develops when both men and women can participate in all the activities. If bike riding for girls is not acceptable for people, it means we have a long way to civilization. Let girls bike, and civilization will be right in front of our doors.”
Fatima and her friends illustrate what Jesus and his disciples understood “Fear Not” to mean. There will be obstacles along the way, but to enter into a life of faith is to live the reality you know to be just and true. Walter Rauschenbusch, in a little book The Social Principles of Jesus, wrote in 1916, “Faith does not ‘believe.’ Faith is that quality of vision of those among us who have the power of projection into the future. Faith is the quality of mind which sees things before they are visible, which acts on ideals before they are realities, and which feels the distant kingdom of God to be more dear, substantial and attractive than the edible profitable present.” Fatima Haidari, Malala Yousafzai, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Toni Morrison, Rosa Parks and countless numbers of women demonstrate what faith looks like amidst the challenges facing us all – like teaching or riding your bike in Kabul. At the end of the day, it looks as if we all live in Kabul.
Biking On The Streets of Kabul, by Fatima Haidari