The most popular women’s sport in Afghanistan right now? It’s not soccer or cricket. It’s not track and field. Afghan girls aren’t picking up tennis rackets or hockey sticks.
They’re hopping on skateboards.
Girls are skateboarding in Afghanistan? They are. And the country’s young female skaters will be rolling into the spotlight next month when the Saatchi Gallery hosts an exhibition of UK photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson’s portraits from her series Skate Girls of Kabul.
Skate Girl, 2014
Last November Fulford-Dobson and a seven-year-old skater from Kabul made the news when Fulford-Dobson’s photograph Skate Girl claimed second prize in the National Portrait Gallery's Taylor Wessing Awards. The portrait shows the young Afghan girl perched atop an indoor skate ramp. She stares directly into the lens, balancing a skateboard more than half her height at her side. Says Fulford-Dobson:
She first caught my eye because she was wearing such a beautiful color. She’s just immaculate. From the way she has tied her headscarf so beautifully and so naturally, you see that she has an innate sense of grace. Her little hennaed hand rests gently—yet possessively—on the skateboard, and how small she seems beside it! I love her assurance: her firm, steady gaze. One feels a sense of depth in her eyes, even though she is just seven years of age.
Skate Girl captured the imaginations of viewers, not only for its subject’s defiant head-on gaze, but for the image’s surprising and inspiring content. Many girls and young women have taken up skating in Afghanistan under the tutelage of Skateistan, an Afghan NGO started by Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich in 2007, which uses skating as a hook to bring children from poor and displaced Afghan families into full-time education.
Afghanistan has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world, and women’s education is a clear predictor for other marks of well-being including health, nutrition, child safety, and access to resources. Forty-five percent of Skateistan’s students are girls—a fact the NGO is proud to highlight—and many have found a way into national education through the skate school. Fulford-Dobson’s Afghanistan portraits tell a unique success story at a time when most news and imagery from the region lead with grim reports.
It’s now accepted wisdom that sports empower women by developing confidence, leadership, and teamwork skills, while often challenging socio-cultural norms and gender stereotypes. Initiatives advocating sports and physical activity for women worldwide are often linked to education—formal and informal alike—and literacy programs. Programs can provide safe spaces for both sport and education, providing “a natural platform to share information and educate girls and young women and their communities about women’s rights.” Soccer and team sports, like Kenya’s Moving the Goalposts program, are common focuses of research and physical education initiatives, but in an Afghan context, where girls cannot really play outdoor sports for fear of being seen by non-relatives, skateboarding offers a unique solution for bringing girls into the arena (in Skateistan’s indoor skate parks).
Fulford-Dobson had access to these young women at Skateistan’s two Afghan skate school sites in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif and her photographs show a privileged look at their empowerment and play. After completing Skateistan’s “Back to School” program, the girl in Fulford-Dobson’s award-winning portrait is now enrolled in the Afghan national school system. She continues to skate in her free time.
The exhibition, which will run in the Saatchi Gallery, London, from April 15–28, 2015, is sponsored by Afghan telecom company Roshan—it's the first time an Afghan company has supported an exhibition at a major international art venue—and is accompanied by a forthcoming publication Skate Girls of Kabul, the inaugural title from new arts publishing house Morland Tate Publishing.
(All images courtesy of Jessica Fulford-Dobson)