I lately came across this list of don’t’s for women on bicycles; according to Brain Pickings, it was published circa 1895 in the New York World newspaper by an author of unknown gender. The list has some 41 items, all of them hilariously obnoxious and obnoxiously hilarious. I cannot decide on a personal “favorite” but here’s a sampling of one that had me laughing out loud:
Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.
The post very relevantly links to another entry about a book documenting the effects of bicycling on women’s emancipation in turn-of-the-century USA, and this made me think about possible parallels to this in my home country. Are bikes really agents of change? Is the level of bike-ridership among women an indicator of their state of emancipation?
I found myself remembering a discussion on one of my mailing groups sparked by a piece of news and the accompanying photos: the news was about a bike rally organized by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), in Alexandria, the poster shared photos lauding a generally positive effort by the MB but remarking how no women participated in rally, it was a male only event.
In recent years, especially in Cairo, there has been a surge of similar initiatives to promote cycling as an alternative and environment friendly mode of transportation, and these events have seen varying degrees of participation from women.
Here I would like to highlight the distinction between, on one hand, these “artificial” events and the closely related rise of bike-ridership among increasing numbers of Cairo residents, mostly members of the capital’s bourgeoisie who consciously embrace cycling as an aspect of a more modern, progressive, and greener lifestyle – what I would call “lifestyle cyclists”; and on the other hand, between what I would call the “cyclists by necessity”: the more organic unconscious users of the bike as the most affordable or accessible means of transportation – which, along with other unmotorized methods (e.g. walking, carts) makes up 30% of Cairo’s mode of transportation, and about 60% of that in the peri-urban and rural areas throughout the country (read this informative and well thought through article (in Arabic) by a friend of mine about transportation in Egypt and how the governing policy can be redirected to greater benefit).
It is important to me to make that distinction, because, while the first type of bike-ridership does see certain participation from women, albeit to a much lesser degree than men, the second one is definitely all male dominated; I would be hard-pressed to recall ever sighting a woman on a bike saddle anywhere outside metropolitan Cairo.
Women from both groups still have to go against Victorian objections by our society to their cycling, but I would argue that female lifestyle cyclists can perhaps do so more successfully possibly due to their perceived status and the more permissive urban setting, while evidently elsewhere these objections have kept women from using the bike as a mode of transportation. It would seem to me that in Egypt the bike hasn’t been as big an agent of change, that it hasn’t done as much to bring about the kind of social revolution and female emancipation as documented by the book for the women of 1900’s America (I know I will be researching this and looking up references about the introduction of bikes into Egypt).
But beyond defying norms and views restricting women’s roles, lifestyle choices, and mobility, the bike, as a tool of mobility, is also therefore a tool of empowerment: it offers a means of transportation that virtually costs nothing, women cyclists would therefore be liberated from reliance on other drivers or the need for money to get around, be it for work or leisure, thus achieving higher level of personal and financial independence; additionally, independence from public transportation also means freedom from the risk of sexual harassment inherent in it. I must admit that prior to reading that article I hadn’t thought of the bike in that light.
While it is imperative never to divorce the promotion of gender equality from any reform activity, however, as we aim to redirect our transport policy and promote more sustainable modes of transportation, and with the expected rise in bike ridership, it will be up to the women of Egypt at the end of the day to obsolete society’s oppressive outdated prudish norms and not to miss out on riding their bikes to more freedom.