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From playing a pivotal role in changing fashion norms to providing freedom of mobility and a means of improving one’s physical and mental health, the bicycle has been a transformative instrument for many women throughout history—and continues to be today. Yet, there remains a gender gap in the cycling community, and the discrepancy is particularly sharp in parts of the world where it is still considered unusual or even improper to see a woman on a bike.

The charge to get more women riding has a long lineage of crusaders who refused to back down quietly and that legacy is alive and well. A recent iteration of this commitment to get women cycling is the “I Want a Bike” campaign in Syria. Following other brave Syrian women who have forged alliances and promoted cycling over the past several years, a new group of young cyclists, in cooperation with the Sport Federation of north-eastern Syria, has established one of the country’s first women-focused cycling organisations. Set to achieve big things, “I Want a Bike” has recently held its first bike race and is going forward with the bold mission to help women overcome the traditions that prohibit them from cycling.

I Want a Bike marathon
I Want a Bike cycling marathon in Amuda in Hasakeh province. © Profimedia

Promoting healthy competition and making women on bikes more visible

Midia Ghanem, a 28-year-old journalist, is the person we have to thank for this emerging community of women cyclists. Ghanem told Sky News Arabia that the initiative began percolating in late 2020 when a friend asked for help with learning to ride a bike. The endeavour was a success and the joy of helping to empower her friend soon had Ghanem dreaming bigger. She presented the idea of a women’s cycling group to another journalist friend, and within just a few days, they had formed a cycling team of 15 young women. The pair put on the first Syrian women’s cycling race in January of this year. There were more than 30 participants, and the top three finishers won new training bicycles provided by the Sports Federation.

The momentum has been building ever since. As Ghanem explained, “Every day we have new women joining the team, we are currently up to 50 women.” Her efforts have been celebrated in local communities and have garnered the support and admiration of many girls, journalists and activists.

Ghanem noted, “Since our race succeeded, we are planning to hold competitions in different cities and towns in northeastern Syria, with the participation of women from across the region. We seek to turn our competition into a wider annual event to reach all of northeastern Syria, with the participation of the largest number of women possible.”

Little girl with a bicycle
“Every day we have new women joining the team.” © Profimedia

Following in the footsteps of other trailblazing Syrian women

Ghanem isn’t the first Syrian woman who was determined to find a way to make cycling more accessible, either. Eight years ago, Sarah Zein also had a dream of seeing more Syrian women on two wheels. Due to attacks and bombings, heavy traffic and increasingly frequent checkpoints, her hometown of Damascus had become a nightmare to travel by car. Fed up with the fact that what used to be a 15-minute journey now took close to an hour, Zein decided to dust off her childhood bicycle.

At this time, the taboo of women on bikes was even more prevalent in Syria. As Zein explained to Reuters in 2018, “there’s a belief bicycle seats deflower women, and virginity is a big deal. I wasn’t expecting the astonishment of bystanders and the sexual harassment.” Commenting on her first journey by bike, she lamented that, “Men yelled, ‘I wish I could be your bicycle seat’. I went home crying.”

It took some working up of nerve to finally push herself to get back on her bike. But, in the end, she did – at first with a male fellow student and gradually with other women as well. Zein soon came to see cycling as a daring act that had the potential to challenge the status quo and empower women to fight discrimination. With that in mind, she co-founded “Yalla Let’s Bike” (Come on Let’s Bike), an initiative to defy gender roles, beat the traffic and promote cycling as an eco-friendly mode of transportation. Ever since, her initiative has been breaking stereotypes, setting a positive example for youth, taking climate action, and empowering women and girls.

I Want a Bike March
Let’s Bike marathon in Damascus. © Profimedia

Bringing women together to create a safe space

“I Want a Bike” is building on these efforts and finding other ways to convince women they have the right to take up space on the road. Reflecting on the similar obstacles she has had to overcome, Ghanem noted that she has also been harassed for riding a bike to work. She was able to overcome the negativity thanks to the support of friends and co-workers and the many benefits that cycling offers. She explained, “I get my daily exercise by riding my bike to work, not to mention that using bikes reduces car exhaust that causes respiratory diseases, and it is an easy, clean and economical means of transportation.”

There’s no doubt about the fact that encouraging women to ride bikes has many positive consequences, both for the individuals cycling and for the wider community. As more women in Syria discover the joy of cycling daily, whether for pleasure or as a means of transportation, it’s clear that others will be inspired and want to join in. Grassroots organizations are the foundation of any vibrant cycling community and we look forward to seeing “I Want a Bike” spreading their message and love for cycling to even more women in the months and years to come!