Seven years ago, Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich sparked a commotion on the streets of Kabul and inadvertently started a gender revolution. His board and four wheels attracted the attention of the kids around him, most of whom had never seen a skateboard before. He noticed something else: the girls were interested, too.
Skateistan began in 2007 when Percovich discovered a perfect spot to skate at the weekend – Mekroyan Fountain, an abandoned, Russian-era concrete relic located in the heart of Kabul. As the local kids began to congregate, to watch and to join in, a quick stop-off to visit his girlfriend turned into a lifelong commitment to stay.
Percovich channelled his efforts into the creation of a non-profit skate school in Afghanistan in 2009. They now have two: one in Kabul, the other in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, near the border with Uzbekistan. The goal is simple: to use skateboarding as a tool for empowerment in a country worn away by 30 years of conflict and dislocation. The children come for skateboarding, they stay for education.
But what makes Skateistan even more special is that 45 percent of their 800 students are girls. When 19-year-old Nelofar steps on a skateboard and flies down the big ramp she tells me she feels "very brave and very strong". She feels free.
"I like the 360 flip, that's very amazing," she laughs. Looking at Nelofar, wide-eyed with enthusiasm as she Skypes me from Mazar-e-Sharif's Skateistan school, I tell her I think she's pretty brave, too.
UNICEF identifies Afghanistan as one of the worst places to be born a woman in the world. Of the four million children not enrolled in school, 60 percent are girls. And, as international forces continue to withdraw from Afghanistan, violence against women is still prevalent. When Nelofar steps on a skateboard, she's breaking gender boundaries.
These boundaries in Afghanistan are mainly set by social convention and enforced by family loyalty and tradition. "The father sets the rules to protect the honour of the family," Skateistan's Communications Manager Alix Buck explains. "There will be conflict sometimes, for sure."
Skateistan found the ultimate loophole when they discovered that skateboarding is still a fairly unknown sport in Afghanistan. Cycling, football and kite-flying might be socially taboo for girls in 2015, but no one quite knows what these boards with wheels actually are. "It's perceived more as a game than a sport," says Buck. Ignorance is most definitely bliss for Nelofar and the 400 girls who get on their boards and fly down the Skateistan ramps every week in their colourful headscarves.
"Before coming here I didn't know about the skaters," Nelofar says. "I heard on television about the skiing, but not the skates!" Encouraged by her aunt, she came down to the Skateistan school to check out the skaters for herself. "I was wondering how they could come down from the big ramp and not fall on the ground and was thinking they would have something on their feet to keep their body on the skateboard. It was very amazing." She can't stop smiling as she talks.
Now, 18 months later, Nelofar isn't just a shit-hot skater – she also works for Skateistan, specialising in student administration and media, and is studying to be a doctor.
Beneath the smiles, however, there is also struggle. Outside the Skateistan cocoon, the concept of girls playing sport continues to cause friction among Afghan people. Out in the open air, women are still stifled by the past. Nelofar recounts a story that occurred only days previous to our conversation. "Two days ago I was running in the street and wanted to join in a running race. We ran about 10km but there was one person on the other side of the street who tried to disturb us. We decided to do the running inside Skateistan instead. In the outside areas it is very difficult – it's impossible for girls to do any sport."
"Disturbed" is – regardless of Nelofar's English – exactly the right word to describe this interruption of self-development. Many of the kids who seek refuge at Skateistan come from disadvantaged backgrounds, often street-working from a young age, like 10-year-old student Mursal, who speaks to me from Kabul.
"Before I came to Skateistan life was so boring for me," she says. "Every day I went to work, selling chewing gum. Then an idea came to my mind: Only working cannot build my future." Like Nelofar, Mursal says skateboarding makes her "feel happy", although that happiness comes at a price. I have to remind myself that this is a girl yet to hit puberty when she says, "To build my future I have to study hard."
But it does feel like perceptions are slowly changing. For starters, Nelofar's father and brothers are fully in support of her skateboarding. "They like my skateboarding," she grins. "They encourage me. They know everybody has rights." Mursal is also fortunate enough to have a supportive family background. "They think it is good for me," she says. "That's why they are sending me to Skateistan."
Buck, too, rightly corrects my western assumptions – largely based on sensational headlines and @UN_Women tweets – that pigeonhole all Afghan women as "alone" in their fight for identity and independence. "Not many people are aware that there's a variety of experiences and varying levels of conservatism that they [girls] might come from," she says.
When I ask Nelofar about her hopes for women in Afghanistan in 2015, she says, "It's my dream that everyone can do sport, especially girls in the street, and nobody will disturb them. Hopefully things will change."
Her hope is shared by her father, who says, "Go, my daughter, and build your future."