The Power of Play: Skateboarding in Afghanistan and India

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by Liz Evans

When we were 13, my friend Anna and I started skateboarding. We cruised downtown after school, went looking for empty car-parks in the holidays, built slalom courses down the middle of Anna’s street, and tried our best not to mow down old ladies and policemen. We felt free and cool and strong, and we met lots of boys which was great. But back then, in our small middle-English town, we were the only girls on boards.

Times have changed, but skateboarding is still predominantly a male sport. Globally, only 5% of skaters are girls. But in Afghanistan, one of the most patriarchal countries on the planet, 40% of skaters are girls.

How the hell did that happen? You may well ask.

In 2007, Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich followed his girlfriend to Kabul, and began riding in the streets. The local kids were intrigued, and soon, everyone, boys and girls alike, was having a go. In a country where girls are consigned to domestic duties, often denied schooling and effectively forbidden to do sports, Oliver realised that skateboarding had all the potential to be a really big deal. Being so new to Afghanistan, it hadn’t been subjected to the usual cultural protocol, so nobody could object when girls began to skate.

Through skating, the girls of Kabul discovered an unprecedented sense of freedom and self-empowerment. They enjoyed a shared sense of identity, learned to support each other and gained respect from boys. Oliver also found a way to offer them schooling by establishing Skateistan, a secure educational facility where older girls as well as boys could get some schooling, skate in segregated sessions, and come together in demos for their families and friends.

Today Skateistan has two parks in Afghanistan, two in Cambodia, and one in South Africa, and Oliver’s model is providing inspiration for other skate initiatives, including Janwar Castle in rural India. Opened in 2015 by Ulrike Reinhard, Janwar’s skate-park was built by volunteers with funds raised by artists including Ai Weiwei, and operates according to two main rules, ‘Girls first!’ and ‘No school, no skateboarding’. The effect on this small community, where society is divided according to a strict caste system, where life is particularly tough for girls and women, has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Skateboarding holds no truck with social and cultural barriers. Without words, it connects people, and more than that, it’s a leveller. Anyone can give it a go. Since Janwar Castle opened, local teenage girls say they no longer feel scared of being sexually harassed, boys are excelling in school, and, with alcohol banned from the park, fathers spend less time drinking and more time engaging with their children. It’s entirely a win-win situation.

The right to play is still not universal, and the majority of skate-parks across the world are still dominated by boys. But projects like Skateistan and Janwar Castle have made the skateboard into a symbol of freedom and unity. By sharing and supporting that sense of strength and freedom Anna and I felt on our boards when we were kids, they are utilising the awesome power of play to generate hope and courage, to defy boundaries and, ultimately, to transform communities.

Photos: Vicky Roy + Jessica Fulford-Dobson