Cycle of Violence: Women Cyclists in Conflict Zones
Wartime conditions are generating interest in bicycling among women in Syria and Yemen, with varying results.
June 25, 2015“Now we’ve seen it all!” groused the street seller. Years of civil war have produced any number of surreal sights in Damascus’s Shaalan district, but he was still unprepared for this one: a young woman whizzing past on a bike.
In Syria’s capital, checkpoints have paralyzed motor traffic. To avoid the gridlock, young Damascenes, including a growing number of women, have taken to bicycles. In response, municipal authorities have begun licensing cyclists and even created bike lanes.
As a cheap mode of independent transportation, cycling holds an illustrious place in the history of women’s emancipation movements. Damascus women report wider freedom, too, as families grow more permissive because of the sheer difficulty of moving around by car. While female cyclists have their detractors, they have also found support in unexpected places. Several years ago, an online cleric gave a favorable ruling to women on bicycles, noting that in the time of the Prophet Muhammad women rode camels. A Saudi religious authority has also approved women’s bicycling, as long as it is for recreation and not transportation and a male guardian is present.
War-torn Yemen is another story entirely. While the country suffers paralyzing fuel shortages, a Facebook-led effort to promote women’s biking last month got just 15 participants and provoked a storm of protest. Images of women on bicycles—their black abayas pressed tight in the breeze, revealing a hint of skinny jeans beneath—seemed to many to be a threat to all they hold dear. Said one commenter, “This is what this war has brought.”
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.