Masomah Alizada is one of the 29 refugee athletes who will compete at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. She fled to France from Afghanistan after she and her cycling friends were threatened by the Taliban. Now, the 24-year-old wants to inspire other Afghan women to fight for their freedom.
"I don’t know if I’ve realized it yet," coach Thierry Communal told InfoMigrants when we reached him on the phone following the announcement that Masomah Alizada was among the 29 athletes headed to the Olympics in Tokyo. Communal has been training Alizada for the past three years.
Alizada and her family, originally from Afghanistan, arrived in France as refugees in 2017. They settled in the northern city of Lille.
The news comes as a huge reward for the athlete after several months of intensive training, including at the International Cycling Federation’s training center in Switzerland. Now, she will be able to take a brief breather from her training schedule and return to Lille to take exams as part of her civil engineering studies.
On July 9, her journey to Tokyo and the 2021 Olympics will begin. She will first join the rest of the Olympic Refugee Team in Qatar, before they leave for Tokyo on July 23.
A message to Afghanistan’s women
Since Alizada started preparing for the games, after she received an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship in 2019, she and her coach have become increasingly aware of the symbolic value of her Olympic participation.
"I want to show all the men who thought that cycling isn't a women's thing, that I have made it all the way through to the Olympics. And if I can do it, any woman who wants to be involved in cycling, they can do it, from any country, like Afghanistan. It’s quite simply a passion, it’s our choice to wear any kind of clothing, whatever we feel comfortable in," she said in a video interview published as her participation in the Olympics was announced on Tuesday.
Cycling for freedom
Alizada and her family fled to France from their native Afghanistan after she and her cycling friends were threatened by the Taliban. "It was very difficult to go out cycling in sporting gear," she recalled. "A lot of people felt it was wrong of us and stopped us to threaten and insult us, and threw stones at us."
According to Alizada, the violent reaction was most likely due to the fact the most people had never seen a woman on a bicycle before. "They thought it was against our culture, and our religion, but that’s not true. It’s just that it was weird for them to see a woman on a bike for the first time."
Alizada, who is a practicing Muslim, wears a sports hijab under her helmet when she's cycling – a small detail of great symbolic meaning. "For me, the sport in itself is not the main thing here. The most important thing is that women from her country and other countries in that region will be able to watch a woman who practices their religion riding a bicycle and that it’s fine to do that," coach Communal told InfoMigrants in a March interview.
Taliban gaining ground
The visibility of women like Alizada has grown all the more important as the Taliban continue to gain ground in Afghanistan. "What will happen to Afghan women if they come to power?," asked coach Communal.
Being a rolemodel for others has sometimes been hard for Alizada, but Communal says he encourages her as much as he can. "I tell her to always think about her father," he told InfoMigrants, pointing to the fact that Aliazada’s father always defended her and her sister's right to ride a bike when they were attacked for doing so in Afghanistan.