In 1911, Alice Hawkins rode around Leicester on a bike promoting women’s rights. The leader of the local faction of the Women’s Social Political Movement—also known as the suffragettes—Hawkins campaigned tirelessly to get women in the UK the vote. Her decision to do so while cycling caused outrage in the local community, particularly since she did so while wearing pantaloons, but the stir was about far more than her choice of attire. Bicycles gave women of the early 20th century control of movement like never before, and this simple act of defiance became synonymous with the liberation of women.
Now, a little over a century later, women in Iran are being denied this same basic freedom.
Earlier this month Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa banning women from riding bikes. His reasoning? Cycling supposedly threatens a woman’s chastity and goes against Islamic Law.
“Riding bicycles often attracts the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption, and thus contravenes women’s chastity, and it must be abandoned” he said, but the reality is that the Iranian government are attempting to turn back the clock on women’s emancipation. A week before the ruling was announced, Khamenei expressed his belief that a females “only role and mission” in life is to be a good mother and housewife, with human rights groups calling the recent spate of controlling anti-women laws ridiculous.
Unsurprisingly, the lady cyclists of Iran are not impressed with the new law, and like the Suffragettes before them are choosing to take a stand, or more accurately, a seat, against the ban. Now women across the country are filming themselves riding bikes and posting the results on social media – a brave move, considering this is the same country that sentenced six of its citizens to jail for filming themselves dancing to Pharrell’s Happy in 2014.
Examples include a mother and daughter from Kish Island, who after hearing about the edict decided to record and share a video of themselves riding bikes. The short film is titled My Selfie for Supreme Leader, and in the clip the pair are wearing headscarves over half of their faces in an attempt to remain anonymous. “We immediately rented two bicycles to say we’re not giving up on cycling,” said the 25-year-old daughter. “It’s our absolute right and we’re not going to give it up.”
The women have received a huge outpouring of support on social media from Western citizens, where their post has been shared thousands of times. One Facebook user said: “Iranian women are unbowed and unafraid! Go ladies go! Protect your honor, pride and dignity by exercising your basic human rights and cycling is one of them.”
While another added: “I live in Denmark and everyone here has a bicycle, riding it to work or uni, from young to old… it’s just crazy to think that in some places women are not allowed to bike.”
Inspired by the mother-daughter duo, in recent weeks more Iranian women have started to take photographs of themselves biking in public and using the hashtag #IranianWomenLoveCycling. The images have been shared on a range of social networks, as well as Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, a campaign that shares images of women without their mandatory hijabs.
Masih Alinejad, journalist and founder of My Stealthy Freedom, not only posted a snap of herself riding a bike at night, but shared why protesting the ban means so much to her.
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بچه که بودم واسه م دوچرخه نخریدن… مگه دخترام دوچرخه سواری میکنن!!! ولی من بی خیال نمیشدم، دوچرخه ی داداش کوچیکه رو کش میرفتم و توو کوچه پس کوچه ها با پسرای محل مسابقه میدادم… اولین نفری ام بودم بین هم سن و سالام توو محل که یاد گرفتم دس ولی دوچرخه برونم.. اولین باری که جفت دستامو برداشتم از روو فرمون، با همون سرعت رفتم توو یه درخت و بینی م شکست، هنوز که هنوزه بینی م اون انحراف کوچیک خاطره انگیز رو داره.. این قصه رو واسه کسایی میگم که فکر میکنن با شایعه و تهدید شون می تونن ما رو از ورزش و لذت مورد علاقه مون محروم کنن… ما بیدی نیستیم با این بادا بلرزیم! When I was a child, ,my parents 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 brother’s bicycle and ride it in small allies, even competing with other boys. I was the only one in my age group among and my classmates who learnt to ride a bike hands free. The first time I did ride a bike hands free, I crashed in to a tree and broke my nose. What I see in my nose today is the sweet memory of those days. I tell this story for those who think can ban us from doing the sports we mostly enjoy with rumors and threats. We will not give up easily! #من_عاشق_دوچرخه_ام #IranianWomenLoveCycling
Well-known for her criticism of Iranian authorities, Alinejad also believes that the government is out of touch with the female population, and that protests like this one are needed to bring change to the country.
“Women are the main agents of change and as they push for equality we see greater push back from the Islamic Republic,” she explained. “Already I’ve received messages from inside Iran from women who are shocked and want to protest. This fatwa has received much ridicule on social media. The fight for equality is a historical process and just in the same way that women succeeded in Europe and the US to win their rights, so will women in Iran.”
And she’s not the only one who thinks contesting the ban is important. “I am sure the prohibition of biking for women will be lifted in coming years,”a fellow protestor, who made her own anonymous video, said to AOL. “On that day, I will be proud that I did resist the oppression.”
Still, it is undeniable that these women are in real danger by ignoring the rules of the ban, and already a group of female cyclists have been arrested. The women were on their way to a cycling event in the North-West city of Marivan in July when police informed them they were breaking the new directive. Witnesses claim several members of the group were arrested after objecting to the ban, while others were forced to sign a pledge promising that they would not ride their bikes in public again.
Official signs began appearing in urban areas as far back as May saying “bicycle riding for women is prohibited,” but the issue of women cyclists has long been a bone of contention in the country. In 1996 a mob of roughly 20 Islamic extremists attacked women using a gender-segregated cycle lane in Tehran, and female bikers are regularly harassed by police unless accompanied by a male relative.
Without a defined penalty, until now police officers have had to come up with other reasons to apprehend women riding bikes, usually citing modesty laws. In truth, biking has never really been an easy option for women in Iran, this new fatwa just made it official. However, this isn’t the only recent government action designed to keep women in their place, with restrictions on freedoms continually being stepped up under the current regime.
Since President Hassan Rouhani’s (second in command after the supreme leader) government took over in 2013, many hard-won women’s rights have been infringed upon, despite promises to the contrary during the election period. Laws drafted through parliament include limiting access to birth control, which may force women to resort to dangerous, illegal abortions – punishable by up to ten years in jail. Not to mention new bills being debated that discriminate against unmarried women applying for jobs and making divorce more difficult, even in the cases of domestic abuse.
The logic behind these new laws is that they supposedly encourage the growth of family, with Khamenei stating that he wants Iran’s population to “double.” But as one commenter on My Stealthy Freedom pointed out, allowing a woman to ride a bicycle does not make her a bad mother.
“How can you ban a mother, who has done so much for so many people, from the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle?” she asked. “Riding a bike is part of our lives.”
Farideh Karimi, a human rights activist and member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (the opposition party to the present government), said: “Suppression of women has been a tenet of the mullahs’ regime from its outset. This latest restrictive measure shows that misogyny is being stepped up under Hassan Rouhani’s administration.
“With each passing day the mullahs’ regime is further infringing on the basic rights of women which they had fought hard to obtain.”
But it is not only females rebelling against the ban. Despite the sexist policies of the government, Iranian women do have male allies in their home country. In August, shortly after the women were arrested in Marivan, hundreds of both male and female protesters marched the streets of the province. Video footage of the protest shows police desperately trying to disperse the crowd, but Mohammad Fallahi, the governor of Marivan, responded to the demonstrators by claiming the ban is to “protect” women. His solution is to build a walled space for women to cycle in without men watching.
This may seem like a bizarre suggestion, but it isn’t the first over-the-top attempt in Iran to make women riding a bike a more “modest.” In 2007, the government put forward the concept of an “Islamic bicycle,” a boxy contraption designed to cover the lower half of a woman’s body while cycling.
Hawkins would bike for hours to take the message of women’s suffrage as far as she could, and despite the abuse he received for her beliefs she never stopped cycling, or fighting for what she believed was right. This is no different to what the women of Iran are doing today, fighting against misogyny one pedal at a time.
Sophie Lloyd is a UK-based writer, artist and the Marketing Coordinator for the 20-21 Visual Arts Centre. She’s passionate about pizza, feminism and animal rights. She takes far too many pictures of her cats. Follow her random musings on Twitter or follow her on Instagram for snaps of her artwork.