‘They said daughters don’t ride bikes’: Iranian females defied the cycling fatwa

Religious leaders in Iran consider women on bicycles a threat to morality. But as traffic chokes the capital, Tehran, a counter-movement is growing

Its a hot spring day in Tehran, and Negin, a 32 -year-old IT manager, is riding her mountain bike through a park. I love my motorcycle. I often go cycling in the countryside with a group, she says. I also cycle in the city, when I go to visit my mother, for example. I suppose the number of women cycling in Tehran is growing. I even have a friend who goes to work on her bike. I would love to do that, but its too far and we dont have showers at work.

What Negin is saying might not sound strange, if it werent for the fact that shes a woman, on a motorcycle, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In spite of the heat, Negin is conforming to the dress code she wears long sleeves and leggings, a headscarf under her helmet and a skirt covering her hips but religious leaders at the highest level in Iran are clear: women on motorcycles constitute a threat to morality.

The question has become a heatedly debated point in Tehran in recent months, as the city grapples with two truly dire problems: air pollution and traffic congestion, both some of the worlds worst. With vehicles choking Irans cities, campaigns to foster cycling are picking up speed.

In autumn of 2015, a young environmentalist in Arak, a city with pollution levels even more staggering than Tehran, started a car-free Tuesday campaign to encourage people to commute by motorcycle. The campaign caught on, and other cities followed suit. Municipal authorities across the country began promoting residents to ride bikes and leave their autoes at home.

Women cyclists, naturally enough, watched an opportunity to support a good cause that everybody in Iran could agree on: clean air. After all, there is no statute in Iran that officially forbids women to cycle.

Bikes are everywhere in Isfahan – but females are prohibited from use the citys motorcycle share scheme. Photograph: Andia/ UIG via Getty Images

But when women in Marivan, a city in west Iran, took to their motorcycles, the latter are arrested by police despite having explicitly followed the advice of the local authorities to cycle instead of drive.

They were released the same day, but merely after signing pledges to not ride bicycles again. Marivan residents later protested in an open letter to local authorities.

Shortly afterwards, Irans vice president for womens affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, posted a photograph of women cycling on her official Twitter account. Under it, she quoted the countrys supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as saying: Womens cycling is permissible on the condition that religious customs are observed.

Subsequently, in an article in the pro-government Tehran Times, a female journalist quoted a government official who supported female cyclists, and concluded: As long as “there hasnt” breaches of the dress code, girls should be free to ride bicycles on the street.

Hopes, however, were crushed when Khamenei issued a fatwa in September 2016, stating women were have been able to ride motorcycles merely not in public.

The fatwa triggered a reaction from female cyclists, who posted photographs on social media of themselves on their motorcycles, with the hashtag #IranianWomenLoveCycling.

. #___ #IranianWomenLoveCycling

A post shared by Masih Alinejad (@ masih.alinejad) on Sep 22, 2016 at 7:48 pm PDT

Among them were a mother and a daughter who posted a short video of themselves cycling on the island of Kish: Cycling is part of our lives. We were here when we heard Khameneis fatwa banning girls from cycling. We immediately rented two bicycles.

Another woman posted a photo of herself on a mountain bike: When I was a child, my mothers did not buy me a bicycle. They said a girl does not ride a bicycle. But I did not give up. I would jump on my youngest friends bicycle and ride it in small[ alleys ], even competing with other boys I tell this story for those who believe[ they] can ban us from doing the sports we mostly enjoy with rumours and menaces. We will not give up easily!

As with many things in Iran, the words of the ayatollah may be open to interpreting, according to a woman who is actively involved in womens cycling. She prefers to remain anonymous , not wanting to be associated with the hashtag campaign.

You have to see the ayatollahs words in a context, she said. What he said was never official, it was never mentioned on his official website and therefore it doesnt have the power of a law. I believe that what he meant was that cycling is bad for women only when it has bad moral outcomes. As long as females cycle in such a way that it doesnt have bad moral repercussions, its OK. This means they need to always wear long gasps and long sleeves, a hijab for the purposes of the helmet, and a skirt. As long as they adhere to these rules, I think there is no problem.

She explains that it generally depends on the local religious authorities whether females are allowed to cycle. In very religious cities, it is out of the question. But in other places, cycling women wont get arrested.

Many Friday mornings, the road around the Tehran Azadi stadium is used as a cycling way. Aficionados in racing gear gratify in front of the stadium, including a number of women. Fariba, 36, an accountant who rides a bright amber motorcycle, smilings broadly when asked what its like to cycle in Tehran as a woman. I think its arousing, she says. And yes, I cycle through Tehran , no problem. I am not afraid of the police.

Nanaz, 30, a lawyer, describes cycling as her great passion. I cycle every day. Sometimes I encompass stretchings of 80km. She says she has never encountered problems while cycling in the capital city. As long as[ the moderate Hassan] Rouhani is our chairperson, we will be able to do it. My great aspiration is to take part in the Olympics.

Whether Nanaz ever makes it there remains to be seen. Although male Iranian cyclists are having some success in Asia-wide competitors, the Iranian Cycling Federation barely has 100 female members. Iranian women are present in all branches of the sport, but during the course of its big tournaments it normally Chinese and Japanese women who win.

Despite the exuberance, cycling still has a long way to go before being a serious mode of transport in Tehran. Motorists are largely unaware of cyclists, and the infrastructure is such that in most of the city it is extremely dangerous to be on a motorcycle. The citys many hills dont make matters easier.

Iran does have a cycling tradition, though. The bicycle was a popular means of transport in the first half of the 20 th century, when autoes were an imported luxury that few could afford. When Iran started fabricating cars on a massive scale in the 1970 s, however, the bicycle diminished, and nowadays most Iranians are wedded to their auto and consider cycling as something for the poor.

The Tehran municipality has taken a modest steps forward. Bike paths now exist in certain parts of the city, and a motorcycle sharing program was put in, though it has yet to catch on: few Tehranis were interested in swapping their car for a rented motorcycle, and there were issues with motorcycles disappearing. A new plan for 120 stations was announced last year but although the docks have materialised, the motorcycles have not.

If Iran does have a cycling centre, it would be Isfahan, its astoundingly beautiful third city. Here, bikes are everywhere. The citys infrastructure stimulates it safer for cyclists than Tehran, and the authorities concerned actively promote cycling. Colourful statues of flower-adorned motorcycles dot the cities, and on Tuesdays one of the main boulevards, Charbagh Street, is closed to automobiles for a large part of the working day.

Yet although the citys bike share system is one of best available, with staffed sheds and cheerful blue motorcycles, theres still one problem: women are not allowed to rent them.

The guard on duty smiled apologetically and said it wasnt him who introduced the ban, but remain unmoved by a plea to make an exception for a tourist.

Nevertheless, girls can own a bicycle, and you do sometimes ensure girls cycling across Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Cycling is truly growing here, said Mahnaz, 29, a female shopkeeper in Isfahans busy bazaar. There are even local politicians who cycle to work to set an example.

The biggest problem is not the authorities concerned, said Negin from Tehran. Its the dress code. On warm days, it can get so hot wearing long sleeves and long gasps. Even worse are the men who look at you and build remarks. Iranians truly have to start getting used to women cycling.

Guardian Cities is dedicating a week to exploring the future of cycling in cities around the world. Explore our coverage here and follow us on Facebook. Will you be taking our challenge to have dialogue with a fellow cycle commuter? Tell us about it here or on Twitter or Instagram utilizing #cycleconvo

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