Pedaling Toward Empowerment and Equality

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

(Photo Credit)

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood,” said the prominent American social reformer and feminist Susan B. Anthony in front of the New York World more than a century ago, in 1896.

When bikes were introduced in Europe the 19th century, little did women suspect that something as simple as a two-wheeled pedal-driven vehicle would have such an impact on their role in society, both on the old continent and throughout the rest of the world. 

The popularity and cheapness of bicycles, as Anthony argues, are said to have played a key role in female emancipation. In those strictly patriarchal times, bicycles contributed to changing the way women thought about their place in society and the way society perceived t


hem. They helped them become stronger and more independent as for the first time a woman could get anywhere she wanted without a man by her side.

But it was not just this. Bicycles not only embodied personal freedom but also came to symbolise the New Woman of the late 19th century. They changed the way women dressed.

The restrictive and uncomfortable Victorian attire was out. The corsets and ankle-length skirts were replaced with bloomers, exposed ankles and even bicycle suits with pants.

Many of you would ask: how is this relevant today? Here is the answer. In the age of convenience, unlimited access to information, educational opportunities and economic and social empowerment, in that same age in which gender parity rates are growing faster than ever, there are certain places in the world where women are still banned from riding a bicycle.

It is well known that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Considering the fact that public transportation is not much of an option in the Arabian Desert, one would then think that this notoriously oppressive society at least provides women with an access to alternative means of transportation. A resounding no.

Until recently, it was illegal for Saudi Arabian women to ride a bicycle. Although the ban was lifted in 2013, women are still prohibited from using bikes for the purpose of transportation but are only allowed to use them “for fun” and only in recreational areas provided that they are accompanied by a male relative and that they comply with the dress code (a headscarf and abaya, which is a coat-like garment that goes down to the feet and which is not exactly the most “functional” garment when cycling).

Similar trends exist in other countries like Iran and Afghanistan. Although it is not strictly forbidden for women in Iran to ride a bicycle, the law insists that every woman should conform to the proper Islamic “dress code” which means women need to wear the hijab and only such clothes that are perceived as modest. This, in combination with men’s famous disapproval of females who get on a bicycle, discourages women from ever using one.

The situation in Afghanistan is the same. After the end of the Taliban rule in the country, women are no longer banned by law to ride a bicycle but the practice is still something that is frowned upon and regarded as utterly inappropriate in the conservative society. It has become a cultural taboo that most females are afraid to break.

“There’s nothing in the Qu’ran [or] in any laws that specifically say girls can’t ride bikes, but it’s taboo because [when] a woman has a vehicle… [it] can get her educated, it can help her get from point A to point B. It can [also] get her out of a dangerous situation. And then, of course, [there is] the taboo of putting something between your legs. Straddling a bike seat is something that we, in our own women’s suffrage movement, had to work through … [there was a belief] it could compromise virginity,” comments Sarah Menzies, a filmmaker and photographer who has been trying to raise funds in support of the Afghan women’s cycling movement.

Why do we consider it important to raise awareness of this issue and join in the fight to make women cycling both legally and culturally accepted?

Because the new strength and freedom that the “fairer sex” in much of Europe and North America experienced through cycling is exactly what helped pave the way for social reforms in most Western countries in the late 19 th century. Society got used to women biking, then it got used to women voting and then it accepted women working.

It will be a long “ride” ahead to female empowerment for Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, but surely one that promises to lead to a more equal and just society.