On mountain high for women’s rights

Wasfia Nazreen on the summit of Aconcagua, highest point outside Asia, with her hula hoop and Bangladeshi flag. (Photo by Jamie McGuinness)

Wasfia Nazreen on the summit of Aconcagua, highest point outside Asia, with her hula hoop and Bangladeshi flag. (Photo by Jamie McGuinness)

In a city where people pride themselves by the number of trails they walk each week, Bangladeshi activist and mountaineer Wasfia Nazreen and mountain biker/activist Shannon Galpin introduced Seattle to a completely different perspective on the great outdoors.

Hosted by Arun Sambataro, co-founder of the online crowdfunding platform Women’s WorldWide Web, and moderated by Seattle’s beloved storyteller and podcaster of The Dirtbag Diaries, Fitz Cahall, the conversation with these two women at the Fremont Abbey on Tuesday night was humbling.

Nazreen created the foundation Bangladesh on Seven Summits to highlight the progress made by Bangladeshi women since the birth of the country 40 years ago. Her goal was to summit the highest peak on each continent in the opes of inspiring girls in Bangladesh to take up outdoor sports and challenge traditional gender roles.

“Given that I come from an extremely patriarchal society, I still see women at the forefront doing all kinds of jobs despite the barriers,” Nazreen said. “You know Bangladesh for all the floods, corruption, and poverty. But there is also a lot of good work happening that’s never highlighted.”

Bringing this pride back to Bangladesh was Nazreen’s first mission, which eventually grew into a foundation. It was initially funded by loans and by selling her mother’s gold jewellery.

“It is usually passed down to a daughter after her marriage and my mother knew I wasn’t going to use it,” she said.

Nazreen, among the first Bangladeshi women to successfully climb Mt Everest, is currently in the U.S. to attempt her second ascent of Denali in Alaska. Her first attempt last year was cut short by bad weather.

Wasfia Nazreen and Shannon Galpin in conversation with Fitz Cahall at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center on Tuesday. (Photo by Truc Allen Media)

Wasfia Nazreen and Shannon Galpin in conversation with Fitz Cahall at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center on Tuesday. (Photo by Truc Allen Media)

Galpin, who founded the non-profit Mountain2Mountain in 2006, was the first woman to mountain-bike solo in the Panjshir Valler of Afghanistan.

The country still views girls riding bicycles as taboo (partly due to the belief that girls lose their virginity and not be able to get married if they ride a bike). Galpin is trying to challenge that as she trains Afghanistan’s first national women’s biking team.

“I used my own desire to ride a bike in Afghanistan to challenge the gender barrier in an organic way and to invite conversation with locals,” Galpin said. “Over time, the bike opened up the door to having more conversations in remote areas. It became an extension of my activism.”

She is currently working on the production of the documentary film called Afghan Cycles.

Despite the marked difference in their backgrounds, Nazreen and Galpin have both used the metaphor of the great outdoors to combat personal and social demons that come with their gender.

Growing up in Bangladesh, Nazreen automatically encountered taboos girls and women face in many South Asian countries.

“I was stopped from playing with a hula hoop when I was 8-years old because it was derogatory for women to shake their hips according to some neighbor,” she said. “I believed that for a long time. Now I take a hula hoop on the summit of every mountain, just to make a point that if you think that’s derogatory, there’s something wrong with you,”

Prior to climbing Mt Everest, she was banned from entering Feni, a village where her father was born, owing to her work with the Tibetan Freedom Movement (China has strong economic ties with Bangladesh). She is now recognized as a symbol of national pride.

“I got marriage proposals, job offers and the same men who kicked me out of the village came in 20 buses to meet me outside the airport,” said Nazreen, jokingly adding that had she known people would have treated her so differently, she would’ve climbed Everest a long time ago.

Galpin purposefully chose to work in a war zone in Afghanistan, but she wishes for Americans to recognize that gender violence happens all over.

Shannon Galpin carries her bike up a hill outside Kabul. (Photo courtesy mountain2mountain.org)

Shannon Galpin carries her bike up a hill outside Kabul. (Photo courtesy mountain2mountain.org)

“Mine and my sister’s experience with gender violence happened in two American states,” she said. “It’s very easy for us to say: ‘Well yeah, sex trafficking happens and of course there are child brides,’ but we forget it’s also happening in our own backyard.”

As for the “dangers” of Galpin and Nazreen’s mission, well that’s just their middle name. Galpin is a parent and she believes her work is something she owes her daughter.

“She is the reason I do this work. I’ve take this leap because I believe she deserves that of me,” Galpin said.

Both women say they have received death threats — Nazreen from a “jihadi” (“He said I was advocating pagan values”) and Galpin from the “conservative good ol’ boys faction in the U.S.”

“They think I’m aiding the terrorists. I look at that as a sign that I’m doing something right.”

Their work might have critics, but Galpin vehemently calls for support from the men of the societies she works in.

“Just because we want to empower women, doesn’t mean we want to ignore boys. We want our brothers’ support,” Galpin said. “We’re talking about women’s rights but it’s not a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue and we needs men in that equation as well.”

Wasfia Nazreen shares a photo of herself hula hooping on a mountaintop. (Photo by Truc Allen Media)

Wasfia Nazreen shares a photo of herself hula hooping on a mountaintop. (Photo by Truc Allen Media)

Ultimately, both Nazreen and Galpin want their passion for the mountains to evolve into tangible change for the women and girls in their communities.

Galpin is heading back to Afghanistan next week to set up four other biking teams outside Kabul.

“I want these girls to go to the Olympics but racing is not the be all, end all,” she said. “Once the world and Afghans understand that this is bringing pride to the country, that normalizes bikes and helps me go to other areas and get more girls on bikes.”

After Nazreen summits Denali, she has only Carstensz Pyramid, in Indonesia, left to climb to complete her mission.

Inshallah, the foundation is set up for a year now. I’m teaming up with organizations that are already set up in Bangldesh,” Nazreen explained. “To me, the campaign.. the climb won’t have any meaning until ten other women can benefit from all this.

This post has been updated since its original publication to clarify quotes from Wasfia Nazreen and correct inaccuracies about her climbing history.

Edlyn G D'Souza is a writer and the more she says that, the truer it becomes. She has her roots in Goa and Mumbai in India, where she worked as a journalist for 5 years. She now lives in Washington where she writes in her blog egeedee.com, draws cat stuff, never tires of seeing Mt Rainier and dreams about changing the world through her stories.

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