In Afghanistan, where few women drive, and female soccer teams have faced death threats, it’s now possible to find seven-year-old girls learning to ollie and ride a halfpipe on a skateboard. In a recent photo series, U.K.-based photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson documented the girls of Skateistan, a program that helps young Afghans learn to skate–and brings them back to school.
The project started eight years ago, when Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich got out his board on the streets of Kabul and was quickly surrounded by crowds–especially children–who had never seen a skateboard before. He realized that he could use skateboarding as a draw to help get more kids back in the educational system, and eventually officially launched Skateistan as a back-to-school program.
Fulford-Dobson learned about the program when she happened to see an article a few years ago. “The article was so short that I nearly missed it,” she says. “The very idea of Afghan girls on skateboards captured my imagination, and I thought it was a shame that such a visually striking story was compressed into a small column of text. We only seem to hear bleak news from Afghanistan, so it was really refreshing to read something so different and uplifting.”
Soon after that, she was in Kabul getting to know the current class of girls in the program. “I was able to spend a few weeks with them and earn their trust,” she says. “They forgot I was there most of the time. And even though I had to communicate through an interpreter, I began to see and appreciate their different personalities–in the way they spoke, how they dressed, how they moved, how they behaved with each other and, of course, in the way they skateboarded.”
In the skate park, following Afghan customs, girls and boys learn separately. “All classes are single-sex, and older girls who have passed through the ranks at Skateistan teach the younger skaters,” she says. “So the project also embodies the idea of women supporting women.”
Since no one had seen a skateboard in Afghanistan before the program started, skateboarding wasn’t seen as inappropriate for girls. “There were no preconceived ideas or notions about whether it was something that girls or boys did, let alone it being seen as a sport or either a feminine or masculine thing,” Fulford-Dobson says. “It is regarded as something that the children can play and have fun with, a simple board with wheels like a toy, that they can do in the safe confines of a school environment and feel free to fly around.”
The program helps empower girls. “It’s impossible to avoid how much joy and action there is as the girls whiz up, down and around the hall,” she says. “One amazing thing about skateboarding is that it demonstrates–perhaps more than many other sports–just how tough and resilient these girls, or any girls, can be. They hurl themselves forward with unstoppable courage, and if they take a tumble they bounce right up again, running back to the queue and cheering on their friends. It’s a brilliant way to illustrate the strength, enthusiasm, and positivity of young women in Afghanistan.”
It’s also working as a way to help increase female enrollment in school, especially for children who work on the street and might not have otherwise gotten an education. The seven-year-old pictured in blue attended the program for a year, and then passed the first three grades of elementary school. Now she’s enrolled in the national school system, but she still stops by the skate park after school.
The photos in this series were recently exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London, sponsored by Roshan, an Afghan mobile phone company. They’ll also be published in an upcoming book called the Skate Girls of Kabul.