The Bicycle - A Tool for Women's Liberation?

By Emma Husband, Staff Writer

With war causing fuel shortages that make it harder to get around, some women in Yemen have been taking to their bicycles.

A Facebook event entitled "Let's Ride a Bike", organised to try to encourage women in Yemen to hop on and get cycling, has generated a lot of attention in the past fortnight, despite only 15 women turning up. Reactions to seeing photos of the women on bikes online have been varied but largely negative. While women are able to drive cars in Yemen, unlike in neighbouring Saudi, the latest transport solution is being deemed as unsuitable and even unbelievable by some Yemenis.

Although seemingly uncontroversial, the humble bicycle has played an interesting role in the history of women's movement and indeed liberation. When first introduced in the late 19th century, cycling was believed to be unsafe for women in western nations due to their long, billowing dresses. When these women began to find solutions to this by modifying their attire, cycling was still regarded as a bad idea due to women's 'fragile nature'. Clearly the independence that the bicycle brought, the feeling of freedom, the movement into spaces previously reserved for men, and the method in which this occurred (with women straddling a wheeled device), threatened pervading gender norms.   

Despite conservatives reeling at this new development, women continued to get on their bikes. Clothed in bloomers, aimed to enable both safety and modesty, cycling gave women new freedoms and increased visibility in the public sphere. This caused women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony to declare that the bicycle has  "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world".  The consequent shift towards automobiles in the decades that followed, especially in America, is believed by some to have impeded the momentum of women's liberation generated by the bike.  

However, the emancipatory effect of cycling did not extend to all women.

Many women, particularly across Africa, walk for hours every day. They are often responsible for collecting water for the family and walk due to lack of alternative transport or facilities closer to home. This is tiring, often dangerous, and leaves them with less time for other pursuits. Initiatives such as Re-cycle are working to provide women in parts of Africa with bicycles in order to allow for safer journeys and increased possibilities for health, income and education. These women have always had to move, to use their body for labour, and so the bicycle for them would be about relieving some of the effort and time involved, whilst offering further opportunities.

Understanding the bicycle within the contexts of the women who ride it helps to highlight the different ways it has, and can continue to, contribute to women's movement and freedom. For some women it helped them to move out of the private sphere and required them to throw away their corsets in order to get pedalling. For others it has provided a safer method of getting to work. For others still it has the potential to transform access to healthcare, water and education.

So while some Yemenis are denouncing the recent transport development as an unfortunate consequence of war, the ramifications for women remain to be seen.