Skateistan: Empowering Afghan girls through skateboarding

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Juliette Cassidy photographs the young girls attending one of five skate schools run by Skateistan: a non-profit aiming to educate and empower children through skateboarding

According to global studies, Afghanistan is one of the worst countries in which to be born a woman. Between 1992 and 2001, Taliban rule banned women and girls from going to school or working. Following decades of conflict, the country has now renewed its focus on revitalising social systems to protect and educate Afghan women and children. Still, recent figures from UNICEF estimate that 3.7 million children in Afghanistan are out of education, and 60 percent of them are girls.

One charity is seeking to challenge this, not only through an arts and humanities-based curriculum, but through skateboarding. Oliver Percovich, an Australian former-researcher who quit his job to move to Kabul, founded Skateistan in 2008. Arriving in 2007, he began using his skateboard as a means to communicate with local youth, and quickly realised the pull that it had on young people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Percovich began reaching out to sponsors in Australia, Europe and the US, and, a year later, Skateistan was established. It began with impromptu skate sessions at various locations across the city, and developed into Skateistan’s first Skate School, and Afghanistan’s first skatepark. Now, 14 years since Percovich first landed in Afghanistan, the charity has five schools worldwide: three in Afghanistan, one in Cambodia, and another in South Africa.

© Juliette Cassidy.

In December 2020, London-based photographer Juliette Cassidy visited one of Skateistan’s schools in Afghanistan. The Spanish fashion photographer had been donating to the charity since she learned about their work earlier that year, and wanted to provide support through her photography too.

When she arrived, ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government had rendered the capital unsafe for journalists, so Cassidy spent her seven-day trip in Mazar-e-Sharif, an eight-hour drive north-east of Kabul. Three times the size of the Kabul Skate School, the Mazar-e-sharif school was built in 2013, housing indoor and outdoor skateparks, classrooms and a separate sports hall with a climbing wall. It offers an arts and humanities-based curriculum, alongside skate sessions, with the aim of dedicating at least 50 per cent of its classes to girls.

Many of the students that Cassidy met were refugees, or from low-income families. “They don’t have papers or the money to pay for school,” she says. “Education is necessary for these girls to dream. When you give these girls the opportunity to go to school, not only do you provide the basics to continue their education, you encourage them to visualise a different future.”

© Juliette Cassidy.

For Cassidy, it was important to produce empowering and positive photographs of the girls, which was far from a challenge. While she was there, she also ran a photography workshop for two of the teachers. At the end of the day, they told her there was a car-bombing on the other side of the city. “They were telling me this story, but they were also singing and smiling at the same time, because they were so happy that they learned photography,” she recalls. Later that day, one of the women messaged Cassidy to say: “I want you to know that I love my country, everybody here does. This happens all the time, constantly, everywhere. People are dying everyday. But we want to live our lives.”

“It is true, what you see on the news about Afghanistan. Bombings, killing, kidnappings, all that stuff, it happens. But there is another side,” says Cassidy. “I wanted to show that people are living their lives and they are happy. There is a life beyond all that conflict”.

© Juliette Cassidy.
Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.