by Abdul Haleem, Jawed Omid

BAMIAN, Afghanistan, Dec. 7 (Xinhua) -- Wearing sports gear as she lined up with more than 30 other cyclists to attend a peaceful race, Zakia, 23, told Xinhua that women have the right to live their lives as equals of men.

The cyclists, including more than a dozen girls, stood in three rows to ride their bicycles in Bamian city to demonstrate women's abilities, promote awareness of women's rights and help to reduce violence against women in Afghanistan's conservative society.

"Our sole objective for riding our bikes here today is to show our capacity as women and send the message that women like men can play a productive role in developing our society and riding bikes is proof of this fact," Zakia asserted.

In Afghanistan where people deeply believe in old-fashioned traditions, many families don't allow their daughters and wives to go out of their homes unless they are accompanied by close relatives.

"By attending the bicycle race and riding in front of hundreds of spectators, we are sending a message that men and women are equal and should enjoy equal rights in society," said Zakia boldly.

Accompanied by traffic police and under the watchful eyes of hundreds of men standing on both sides of the road, the cyclists after riding for around 4 km gathered in the grounds of Bamian University where speakers called upon people to "say no to violence against women" and promote the culture of respecting women in society.

In Afghanistan where cultural barriers have deprived the majority of women, particularly in rural areas, of the right to read and write, women also face acts of violence ranging from forced marriage to beatings by their in-laws.

More than 2,620 cases of violence against women, according to Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Watch (AIHRW), have been registered so far this year.

However, the watchdog noted that the number of cases of violence committed against women in the current year is "shocking," but explained that many cases of violence against women go unregistered due to security problems in many areas and cultural hurdles.

Common cases of violence against women in the male-dominated country are underaged marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence including physical beatings by family members, rape and honor killings.

"There is no justification for abusing women and women have equal rights to men and therefore violence against women must be put to an end," Mayram Mohammadi, 19, another female cyclist, told Xinhua.

The young lady, who is a member of the Women's Cyclist Association in the central Bamian province, went on to explain that her family had opposed her cycling in the beginning, but more recently have become more supportive of her choice to cycle.

The central Bamian province in the militancy-plagued Afghanistan is predominantly a peaceful place and people can walk the streets around the clock free of fear.

"Violence against women has been drastically reduced in Bamian and we are doing our best to push our noble cause across the country as we hope to see Afghanistan free of violence against women one day," a teenage male cyclist, Rahman Fitrat, told Xinhua.

The boy also said that he is encouraging his sister to campaign to end violence against women through unified events such as group bike rides and holding workshops to raise awareness of women's rights in society.

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