The first time I bought a bike as an adult, I did so when my mum was on holiday. I only cycled late at night so none of my neighbours would see me and practised in a park in the next town along. After my mother returned, I found one morning that my lovely red Rayleigh had been dismantled and the parts distributed to the local boys. One took the chain as a spare and the other made use of the wheels. You could say that my first foray into cycling hadn’t exactly gone smoothly, but I also wasn’t surprised. Even though I’ve lived in the UK all my life, I was told as a young girl that it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ for a Muslim girl to cycle. Especially one who wore a hijab.
Still, that didn’t stop me developing a deep fascination for bikes and cycling. As corny as this sounds, they became a symbol of freedom and liberation for me. My fascination only grew when I became involved in environmental campaigning where the bike is hailed as the ultimate green and healthy form of transport. Cycling is cheap, it keeps you healthy and happy and produces absolutely zilch carbon emissions, unlike cars or even buses and trains. So why wasn’t I cycling? Not an easy question to answer, especially to my cycling friends who didn’t really understand the cultural barriers that I, and many Muslim women who want to cycle, face.
And it is cultural barriers. Attitudes towards Muslimahs on bikes are diverse. Whilst it’s very much frowned upon in the Middle East, Algerians seem to have no issue with it – I have an Algerian friend whose dad insists she cycles even though she hates it. We both enjoy the irony of our situation. In some Asian countries, the sight of a Hijabi woman on a bike or moped doesn’t stir the slightest bit of interest. Indeed, I’ve always found it rather amusing that the humble bicycle could be seen as a threat to the ‘virtue’ of Muslim women. Even after I’d cottoned on to the underlying reason to the objections raised by my mum when I was young, I still thought it was all a bit ridiculous.
“It’s just a lump of metal and wheels that happens to transport you from A to B!” I told my mum. Yet cycling as a Muslim women is seen as subversive in the Middle Eastern culture from which I hail. Can all this fuss really be about my hymen? And yes, the hymen is what we are talking about, as it is, apparently, one and the same thing as being virtuous. Or is this about the fact that cycling makes you independent and self-sufficient? It’s free, you don’t need to pay for petrol or insurance, and you need nothing but your two legs to take you wherever you want to go – something which is particularly threatening if you happen to be single as well as female.
A recent award-winning film by Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al Mansour called ‘Wadjda’ tells the story of a young girl living in Riyadh who becomes obsessed with a green bike at her local store. She wants to race with the boy in her neighbourhood, but soon cultural pressure from her mother and father thwart her efforts to buy the bike. A Qur’an recitation competition with a cash prize is her last resort to acquiring her beloved green bike. “I remember when I was a kid, my father took me along with my brothers to get bicycles and I chose a green one,” explains Al Mansour who is the first female Saudi filmmaker. “I am extremely lucky to have a father who wanted me to feel dignified as a woman, but it was definitely a different story for my classmates and friends who would have never even dreamed of asking for a bicycle.”
“I think the heart of the story [of the film] is something anyone can relate to, which is the idea of being labeled different or deviant for wanting something outside of what is traditionally considered acceptable,” continues Al Mansour. “The Saudi culture can be especially brutal and unforgiving to people who fall out of step with the society, so there is a real fear of being labeled an outcast.”
Social and cultural pressure is at the heart of why many Muslim women are forbidden from cycling. It is not deemed as very lady-like and is also seen a threat to a girl’s reputation. I for one would like to challenge that. I recently decided that I would try cycling again, years after my first failed attempt. I went on a free adult cycling training course, got on the bike and was soon cycling around the park with a huge smile on my face. It was as liberating as I imagined it would be and let me tell you this: so much fun. I would certainly not be giving up my bike without a fight this time!
Green Facts of Cycling
• Bicycles currently save over 238 million gallons of petrol every year
• Riding for 15 minutes to and from work each day burns the equivalent of 11 pounds of fat a year
• Bicycles cost less than 3% as much to purchase as a car
• Like all exercising, cycling helps improve your health, your mood and lowers your blood pressure
• It takes around ﬁve percent of the materials and energy used to make a car to build a bike
• A bike produces zero pollution.
Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK with a special interest in environmental issues and the Muslim world. She is also the Eco-Islam editor at GreenProphet.com which is the leading news site on green issues in the Middle East. You can see more of her work at arwafreelance.com