Berlin-based NGO Skateistan teaches girls how to skateboard and most importantly, how to believe in themselves. Meet three of their female skateboarders who persisted against all odds and craved out a rad space in a white male-dominated culture.
Tin’s Story: Breaking gender boundaries in Cambodia, one kickflip at a time
Skateboarding helmets and knee pads are glistening in the sun while Cambodia’s top female skater and Skateistan instructor, Kov Chan Sangva, is landing her kickflip in front of a bunch of boys.
In Cambodia, gender lines are clearly defined and women are often expected to adhere to feminine norms of behaviour and appearance. That doesn’t usually include knowing how to ollie.
“When I started skateboarding six years ago, it wasn’t very popular in Cambodia, especially amongst girls,” says Kov Chan Sangva, also known as Tin in the local community.
“I had never been on a board before, but when I saw it, I had this inner determination that I could do it.”
It turned out that it wasn’t as easy as it looked. In the beginning, Tin started skating with a group of boys and found it really hard to integrate - most of them were either ignoring her, or looking down on her because she was a girl. But then one day, she did something that no one in the group had done before - she successfully landed a kickflip.
“I was so excited that my legs were shaking! Suddenly, everyone wanted me to teach them how to do it and wanted to hang out with me.”
Today, Tin helps girls pick up skateboarding and realise their potential through sport. Although skateboarding globally is still male-dominated, she is keen to prove that girls can do tricks too.
“At Skateistan, when a boy is coming for a lesson for the first time, he hops directly on the board and starts trying, no matter what. If it is a girl, she is usually too shy to come straight to the skatepark. Women are observers in the beginning and this proves that the only ingredient we are missing is the confidence in ourselves.”
That’s why Tin is determined to share her passion for skateboarding with as many girls as she can and use the board as a tool to empower female students at Skateistan. As one of Cambodia’s strongest skaters, she also hopes to be soon one of a handful of female Cambodian athletes to compete internationally.
“I’ve been working at Skateistan for almost six years now and the organisation definitely changed my life. Back when I started, I was this shy girl who didn’t have the confidence to try anything new, and today, children look up to me and call me their teacher. I can’t even find the words to describe how much this means to me.”
Zainab’s Story: Acting as a role model for girls in Afghanistan
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Kabul is its military presence. Bombed-out buildings, rusty old Soviet tanks and barbed-wire fences are scattered all over the city and it looks like there is another bombing almost every week.
From a distant corner, three women are entering the city, running an unofficial marathon from the Paghman Valley to Kabul. Like most marathon runners near the end of a race, the women look quite exhausted and on top of that, they have to muster additional willpower to endure the insults reserved for women who have the audacity to do anything out of the ordinary in public.
“People were calling us names and shouting at us ‘Why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam’,” recalls Zainab, one of the three runners. Like many women in Afghanistan, she was brought up in a culture that often prevents girls from going to school or participating in sport. Yet the 29-year-old has become the first Afghan woman to run a marathon in the country, something she has never imagined she would have a chance to do.
“When I was younger, I used to do Taekwondo in a private club, but the police came one day and closed it down because they said that sport is not for girls,” explains Zainab. “Sometimes when the culture and the community you’re living in is limiting you, this only encourages you to push more and be more determined. Sometimes limitations make you stronger. So when I realised that a simple sport like running is not possible in my country, I thought - I have to do it!”.
Zainab got introduced to the sport while working at Skateistan in Mazar-e-Sharif as a Sports Coordinator. Skateistan’s Program Director, Talia, convinced her to apply for a grant from another NGO, Free to Run, to compete in an ultramarathon in China’s Gobi desert that covered 250 kilometres in six days.
“I can not say that I’m different from any Afghan woman - after all, I grew up in the same culture, but Skateistan totally changed my life! I started teaching girls how to skateboard and do many other sports, such as basketball, football and climbing, and I realised that nothing is impossible. That’s why I decided to apply for the marathon!”
Zainab had never run before, so Free to Run tailored a six-month training course for her prior to the ultramarathon. But because running outdoors was unsafe, her fitness regime was limited to jogging laps in her family’s small backyard or inside Skateistan’s Skate School.
And although running in circles in her own garden was not the easiest situation, Zainab continued training and her persistence paid off a few months later when despite the cold, the heat and the pouring rain, she crossed the finished line in China.
“I did it because I wanted to open the doors for other women in Afghanistan, especially in sports. I run for every single girl in our country!”
Kelly’s Story: Building a community of female skaters in South Africa
For decades, women skateboarders were often written off and shut out. But that never really bothered Kelly Murray, the South African skateboarder competing amongst the world's best, who’s currently building a community of female skaters at Skateistan in Johannesburg. She got involved in the sport when she was only 12 and her cousins, all boys, got skateboards as presents for Christmas.
“I remember I received a doll and was very upset. Eventually, I went to the shopping mall to exchange it for a skateboard so that I could join my cousins in skating.”
Kelly never thought it was weird that she was the only girl in the crew, but she got irritated by those little comments that she received at skateparks about being ‘so good for a girl’. But instead of feeling bad, it only motivated her to excel in the boys’ club and often beat her male counterparts in a game of S.K.A.T.E.
Skating is not just her passion; it is her job, too. Kelly has been part of Skateistan since it launched in Johannesburg in 2014 and is currently tasked with building a community of girl skaters in South Africa by developing the girls-only sessions at the Skate School.
“I’ve always wanted to inspire more girls to get on board because it’s a great way to build one’s confidence. As a young kid, I was very shy and skateboarding really helped me a lot to overcome that. It helped me to connect with others more easily and just be out there.”
That’s why when Kelly heard of Skateistan, she immediately knew she wanted to be part of it and still works for the organisation, four and a half years later.
“What we do at Skateistan is to get girls excited about skateboarding and then the sport does all the rest. It teaches them important life skills that they would need outside of the skate park, such as perseverance, self-control and empathy.”
In order to inspire more girls to start skating, Kelly is in charge of developing a mentorship program, where older female skaters are invited to mentor the younger girls, as a means of increasing female participation. Kelly also runs a girls-only session every Saturday, for girls to come and try out skateboarding.
“In the beginning, we were running mixed sessions, but then realised that the girls were very shy and would only come to hang out and watch the boys. So we thought about how to get them more involved and decided to start these girls-only sessions. It started out with just a few students but now it’s a huge success - we have over 30 girls on a Saturday!”
These days, Kelly is more and more inspired by her work, as she sees that it has directly impacted participation levels amongst girls and more importantly, confidence levels. She is watching new girls coming in every month, finding each other, pushing one another and building a community.
“What I like about my work at Skateistan is that it’s all about inclusivity and creating a safe space for girls where there wasn't any before. We create a community and a support system, showing girls that other girls skate and they do it really well.”
Over 50% of Skateistan's students are girls. Donate today to support them this International Women’s Day and help more girls to dream big and fulfil their potential.