By Dani Wexelman
They’ve grown up in a world being told that they can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t even try. They’ve grown up in a place where women get married and watch boys become men. Yet, behind their oppressed eyes, Afghan women stand tall, willing to risk their life for change. This is a story about The Mountain Girls.
A Change in Plans
“Why would you bother going over there?” A question Kerstin May, an emergency room doctor in Montrose, Colorado, couldn’t escape. “Over there” referred to Afghanistan, a trip that May almost never made.
“I had actually been planning for years and years to go to the Himalayan Rescue Association by Everest Base Camp,” May said. “I was all ready to go and then my husband and I bought a house, and we decided I couldn’t be gone for three months. Financially, we couldn’t do it, so I declined. I was really upset about it.”
Two days later, that changed. May’s friend invited her to a local community center where Danika Gilbert, a 13-year mountaineer, spoke about “some girls who are going to climb mountains in Afghanistan.”
“My jaw was on the floor,” May said.
Never having been to a Muslim country and only knowing the basic understanding of Islam, the 33-year-old knew this was something she had to be part of. Her two-week trip focused on medical teaching, but for May and the Mountain Girls, it transformed into something so much more.
An Uphill Battle
Marina LeGree made her first trip to Afghanistan in 2005, and a decade later founded Ascend. Mount Noshaq was off limits to Afghans until 2009, when men began climbing the 24,580-foot summit, which sits in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush.
“If it’s doable, why can we not have women do it,” LeGree questioned. “How cool would that be?”
Before her plans could take off, LeGree needed a leader — someone who could sink his or her teeth into the purpose of this expedition; someone who wasn’t looking to climb the mountain to brag about climbing the mountain.
“That ruled out a lot of people,” LeGree said. “Then I met Danika [Gilbert] and said, ‘You’re totally the right person. This is awesome.’”
Gilbert’s first trip to Afghanistan was last May and since then, she has made three more trips, gaining knowledge of the terrain and the changing landscape for women.
Gilbert, May, and LeGree bring different skill sets to the expedition, helping Afghan girls train for the climb of their life. Spending time training, teaching, and nurturing these young girls is more than just a volunteer effort. It has become a part of each woman’s life mission. They protect these young Afghans as if they were their own children.
Before anyone can even take a step, each girl’s father must sign off on their daughter’s participation in Ascend. It’s not easy for an Afghan father to just scribble down his name on the dotted line and wave goodbye.
“Women are perceived as property first and foremost,” LeGree said. “Fathers are primarily responsible for safeguarding the virtue and purity of their daughters.”
In the eyes of most of society, their daughter’s ultimate achievement in life is not to become strong and climb mountains. It is to marry well. By signing on the dotted line, Ascend fathers are placing the highest amount of trust in their daughters and standing up for their right to be different and their right to think outside the box.
“Most of the people in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, support this, but then there’s a small portion that don’t and they’re very violent,” Gilbert said.
So while the Mountain Girls proceed with caution, they’re a mighty force to be reckoned with, putting their life on the line to see their dreams come true.
So, what are some of the hopes and dreams of The Mountain Girls?
“I dream that I will become a famous singer.”
“I always wanted to serve my country and besides that, show people that a woman can be powerful.”
“I want to be the first woman president of Afghanistan.”
“I wish I can be a role model in my country.”
LeGree, Gilbert, and May’s courage and resiliency are an example to these young women. Safety is always at the forefront of these leaders’ minds, but so is pushing boundaries and helping these young women have the same opportunities they had growing up in America. These American women provide the tools for The Mountain Girls to not only ascend mountains, but to climb upward in their futures as well.
The Mountain Girls aren’t scared.
“These girls have a very clear understanding that they don’t want it to be the way that it is,” May explained. “They want to be able to have their basic rights. They would like to be able to run a business or be in politics. I think when they first started, they were just excited about having an opportunity presented to them because they don’t get a lot of opportunities. I don’t know if all the girls truly understood what they were getting into when they started.”
Two years later, The Mountain Girls’ purpose is indisputable. Their autobiographies tell stories of fierce and resilient young women.
“These negative thoughts of people cause and motivate me to be active in my society and show them that I can and the women can [be] everything that they want,” 23-year-old Fouzia wrote.
“Sometimes I wonder why you would do this?” 15-year-old Zahara wrote. “Not only ‘you’ but also Ascend’s establishers. We are Afghan. We are known as Taliban in every part of the world. Ascend has helped me learn about leadership and this is related to my goal. I want to be the first woman president of Afghanistan, so it’s good to learn more about leadership from now on. I want to be a different, great, and wonderful president for my people.”
Similar to her peers, training to climb the highest mountain in Afghanistan propelled Maryiam’s hopes and dreams.
“I like Ascend because it is empowering women to be leaders and it shows women are as capable as men, and there is no difference among men and women.”
May put it poignantly.
“Half of the country is women, and half the country’s story is never being told. Their issues are different; a lot different.”
Despite the tough road ahead for The Mountain Girls, what remains the same is the climb. It knows no gender, race, or religion. Every climber has a fair chance — something these Afghan girls long for in life.
“No one is more aware of the enormity these expeditions hold for the girls and for the entire country,” Gilbert said, “The symbolism of an Afghan woman climbing the country’s highest peak is so important. It means something to the whole of Afghanistan; the whole world.
Ascend evaluates each girl’s skills after training is complete and chooses two to six girls for the expedition.
“The girls are so eager to do this, but I’m also aware of the weight that will carry for them. They all want to be there. Every one of them wants to be that woman that shows women are capable of doing this.”
Regardless of those who won’t be able to make the climb this time around, their hopes and dreams still have life to breathe.
“At the end, I want to say that living in this society is really difficult, especially for the girls, but again we stand against every challenge. I hope that one day, Afghan girls and women get their freedom and their real rights like other women all around the world,” Fouzia said.
LeGree explains that it’s the Afghan fathers who are the unsung heroes.
“They are basically agreeing to stick their necks out and take all the gossip and abuse from society in order to allow their daughters to follow their dreams.”
Dreams that The Mountain Girls deem worthy enough to risk their lives for, for their future and the future of all Afghan women.
To donate to Ascend and help these women reach their goals and support their futures, visit http://ascendathletics.org/donate/.