‘They said girls don’t ride bikes’: Iranian girls defy the cycling fatwa

Religious leaders in Iran deem 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 bike. I often run 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 guess 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 voice strange, if it werent for the fact that shes a woman, on a bike, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In spite of the hot, Negin is conforming to the dress code she wears long sleeves and leggings, a headscarf under her helmet and a skirt encompassing her hips but religious leaders at the highest level in Iran are clear: women on bikes constitute a threat to morality.

The question has become a hotly debated phase in Tehran in recent months, as the city grapples with two trulies dire problems: air pollution and traffic congestion, both some of the worlds worst. With cars 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 bike. The campaign caught on, and other cities followed suit. Municipal authorities across the country began fostering residents to ride bikes and leave their autoes at home.

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

Bikes are everywhere in Isfahan – but females are banned from utilizing the citys motorcycle share strategy. Photograph: Andia/ UIG via Getty Images

But when women in Marivan, a city in west Iran, took to their motorcycles, they were arrested by police despite having explicitly followed the relevant recommendations 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 afterward 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: Women cycling is permissible on the condition that religion customs are observed.

Subsequently, in an article in the pro-government Tehran Times, a female journalist quoted a government officer who supported female cyclists, and concluded: As long as there is no violation of the dress code, females should be free to ride bicycles on the street.

Hopes, however, were crushed when Khamenei issued a fatwa in September 2016, stating girls were allowed to ride bikes only not in public.

The fatwa sparked a reaction from female cyclists, who posted photograph 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 photograph 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 brethren bicycle and ride it in small[ alleys ], even competing with other boys I tell this story for those who guess[ they] can ban us from doing the athletics we largely enjoy with gossips 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 terms 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 repercussions. 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 pants and long sleeves, a hijab under 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 women are allowed to cycle. In very religious cities, it is out of the question. But in other places, cycling girls wont get arrested.

Many Friday mornings, the road around the Tehran Azadi stadium is used as a cycling way. Aficionados in racing gear fulfill in front of the stadium, including a number of women. Fariba, 36, an accountant who rides a bright amber motorcycle, smiles 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 cover stretchings of 80km. She says she has never encountered problems while cycling in the capital. As long as[ the moderate Hassan] Rouhani is our chairperson, we will be able to do it. My great ambition is to take part in the Olympics.

Whether Nanaz ever attains it there remains to be seen. Although male Iranian cyclists are having some success in Asia-wide competitors, the Iranian Cycling Federation scarcely has 100 female members. Iranian girls are present in all branches of the athletic, but during the big tournaments it is generally Chinese and Japanese women who win.

Despite the enthusiasm, 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 build matters easier.

Iran does have a cycling tradition, though. The bicycle was a popular forms of transportation in the first half of the 20 th century, when vehicles were an imported luxury that few could afford. When Iran started manufacturing vehicles on a massive scale in the 1970 s, however, the bicycle decreased, and nowadays most Iranians are wedded to their car 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 bike sharing programme was set up, though it has yet to catch on: few Tehranis were interested in swapping their vehicle for a rented bike, and there were issues with bikes disappearing. A new plan for 120 stations was announced last year but although the docks have materialised, the bikes have not.

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

Yet although the citys bike share system is one of the best, 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 insure girls cycling across Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Cycling is genuinely growing here, said Mahnaz, 29, a female shopkeeper in Isfahans busy bazaar. There are even local legislators who cycle to work to set two examples.

The biggest problem is not the authorities, said Negin from Tehran. Its the dress code. On warm days, it can get so hot wearing long sleeves and long pants. Even worse are the men who look at you and construct remarks. Iranians really 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. Investigate our coverage here and follow us on Facebook. Will you be taking our challenge to have dialogue with a fellow cycle passenger? Tell us about it here or on Twitter or Instagram use #cycleconvo

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