Monday, June 20, 2011

Vehicles of Equality

[image via cnn]

Last week many of us were following the #women2drive campaign in Saudi Arabia - a move organised via social media, where about 40 Saudi women drove cars in protest of their country's ban on female drivers. Saudi Arabia is the only country where it is currently prohibited for a woman to drive. The ban has become a symbol of gender inequality, while driving has become a symbol of freedom and women's liberation. It is unclear as of yet what effect the protest will have on Saudi policy toward women drivers. Meanwhile I've received an email from a cycling activist, asking whether I thought bicycles would at any point be incorporated into the movement.

[image via wn]

To clarify, women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to cycle just as they're not permitted to drive. That is, they are allowed to be passengers on a bicycle, but not operators. The point of the ban is to prevent women from going off on their own, and so it applies to any vehicle that facilitates travel. However, I doubt that Saudi women will be getting on bicycles and staging a #women2ride movement any time soon. While in some cultures there is now a trend to associate cycling will freedom (freedom from dependence on fuel, from being stuck in traffic, from having to find parking, from hour-long commutes, from financial strain, etc.), the bicycle does not symbolise any of those things in Saudi Arabia. Neither does it symbolise travel, in the contemporary sense: A car can travel further and more efficiently if fuel is not an issue. In order for a group to protest not being able to engage in an activity, that activity has to be perceived as desirable. And I just don't think cycling has that status in Saudi Arabia.

[image via rfe/rl]

There are other issues to consider as well. Operating a bicycle is deemed "too sexy" by some government and religious figures in conservative Middle Eastern countries. In Iran there is technically no travel ban in effect for women, but the Iranian Women's Cycling Team was stopped by the police while training last October and told that the activity is not permitted in public, as it is too provocative.

There is also the question of safety. Driving in protest is safer than cycling in protest, as on a bicycle a person is more vulnerable to recognition, apprehension, and potential attack.

[image via bikehugger]

While in Western cultures the bicycle became a symbol of gender equality in the Edwardian era, I don't think that this can be applied to today's situation in countries where basic women's rights are being debated - particularly in the Middle East. The circumstances are too different. Should cycling activists feel threatened by the #women2drive initiative? I think that would be highly misguided. But the question of how to make bicycling more accessible to women in this region is worth considering.

32 comments:

  1. Consider the Saudi climate as well. Tomorrow's high in Riyadh is supposed to be 111 Farenheit; the low, 86. That's HOT Especially if you have to bike in what, in Saudi Arabia, is considered modest clothing. In all likelihood, *black* modest clothing.

    I have never been to SA, but i have been right next door in Dubai. The first time, I was on a layover, and had something like 6 hours to kill in the Dubai airport, so I thought I'd go outside for a breath of actual air. Big mistake. It was after 9pm, and the temperature was still over 100. And humid! It felt as though a huge steaming hot filthy wet blanket had been thrown on top of me. I'm fine with biking under a whole range of weather conditions, but not those.

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  2. I think the issue here has more to do with gender equality than any sort of cars vs bikes discussion. It is common for bike advocacy ppl to touch on that topic (bikes vs cars) whenever transportation and human rights come up. I think that tendency is what prompted the activist's email to Velouria.

    I do agree with Hilzoy that Saudi Arabia's climate may not be conducive to riding, but I believe that denying any individuals access to common modes of transportation based on something like gender (or race, religion, sexual orientation, etc) is a terrible idea.

    On the other hand, the pic of the guy riding around with his ol' lady on the back of his roadster? That was pretty rad.
    -rob

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  3. I have spent quite a bit of time over in that world, as an archaeologist, and am hopeful that some of those countries will get on a safer, more secure, and democratic path in the near future. I'm not holding my breath about the Gulf countries, however. I did publish one article about a Pakistani cyclist I met:

    http://www.adventurecorps.com/when/1990pakibiker.html

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  4. Re weather: What about India and Indonesia - Is it not just as hot and humid there, but loads of people cycle?

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  5. Saudi is more of a oven heat, rather a blast furnace. Temps over 100 in India do occur, but we're talking 110+ baking hot, plus having to wear the black bee keeper's suit makes it sort of out of the question. I've been to India in July, and it was hot, but nothing above 100.

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  6. Even if those places are as hot as Arabia (and I'm not sure if that's the case) there is still the issue of being covered head-to-toe in black clothing that hilzoy brings up, which I don't think is the norm in India or Indonesia, though again I could be totally off-base.

    OT: is this hilzoy from Obsidian Wings? If so, good to see you here; I miss your writing.

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  7. "plus having to wear the black bee keeper's suit..."

    : ))

    To respond some more to Rob's earlier comment: Cycling does not exist in isolation, so naturally it will be tangled with all sorts of other issues. I have quite a few friends and colleagues from the Middle East, including female friends from Iran and Saudi. The disconnect between their high professional standing in their countries and their social positions is staggering. A few of them are cyclists, and they are frustrated not to be able to do it in public. There is a big class divide as well, because women from wealthy families have access to compounds where they can ride (i.e. compounds = not in public). These can be quite large, consisting of dozens or even hundreds of acres of private land that are patrolled and fenced in. It's still not the same as having the freedom to go anywhere, but at least it's something.

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  8. Absolutely, cycling doesn't exist in isolation. But, to me, it seems early take a look at #women2drive and try to make it a cycling advocacy issue. Yes, these women should be able to ride publicly, but the equality issue needs to be addressed more than the cycling issue.A little while ago, you posted about the portlandize blog's appeal to stop trying to "sell" cycling as green; in my opinion, to look at this thing and say "what about bikes" is just going to make the non-cycling world say "enough with the bikes already. That's not really the issue here."

    -rob

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  9. In some parts of the world the 12th century is alive and well functioning normally.

    Until that changes women in those countries will be chattel to their husbands. :^((

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  10. Walt - Quite a few women I know from that area would not agree, and believe their countries are more progressive and pro-women than the US and Western Europe. The reasoning is that veiling laws allow women to avoid "the male gaze" and allow men to not treat every woman they meet as a sex object, to be evaluated on her looks. I think there is something to that reasoning, at least in theory. But as always, theory and practice often do not coincide.

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  11. I really like your analysis of the issue, and also feel that the restriction is really about restricting women's movement in general. I feel the cycling issue is really negligible at the moment, as the issue isn't cars vs. bikes, but whether women should have freedom of mobility. And I think ultimately, whether Saudi women want to have mobility via bike, car or both is really up to them, and not for others to choose. And if it were to be via bike, I think the traffic conditions and infrastructure would have to facilitate cycling.

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  12. Climate is definitely an issue, as is landscape. Middle eastern countries tend to be densely populated areas surrounded by desert. Most people walk for their daily needs, take a service (a shared type of taxi) for in town visits so the idea of being able to drive is about freedom of movement. Between the hlls and traffic and weather I have no desire to bike in the middle east. When I was in Lebanon, the two rules of driving are, go and don't die in that order. There was one stop light in the country which nobody paid attention to. Trips of 30 miles often take all day due to traffic.

    As far as culture goes, wearing a veil and separate facilities for women + families and men are more complicated than it looks like from the outside. Arabic women tend to have more familial power than in the west and often have some very valid points about the destruction of the family in the west.

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  13. Walt D:
    Very generous of you to bring them up to the 12th century. I was thinking more like the 7th.
    Velouria: Seriously? You know "quite a few women" from that area that would say their countries are "more progressive and pro-women" because of veiling laws? That reeks of Antebellum Southerners who would argue that their slaves had more freedoms on the plantations than free blacks in the North.

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  14. raleighpursuit - The logical equivalent would be if the slaves said it about themselves, but I understand what you mean.

    Yes, I know quite a few women who say exactly what I wrote. Most of them are well educated (MA-PhD level), from wealthy families, and travel back and forth between their countries and Europe frequently. Some of them will even remove their veiling when in Europe (and the fathers/husbands/brothers/uncles who accompany them will be okay with that), then put it back on on the plane home.

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  15. OMG to the cycling path!!!!!!

    This is tough stuff -- my first round of grad work was actually in Near Eastern Languages and I can echo what V. says. My erstwhile colleagues were almost uniformly of the mindset that their societies were at least honest about how men viewed women.

    After a day spent cycling around NYC in skinny jeans and a men's A- shirt, I can see the appeal in being able to totally remove oneself from someone else's gaze. I think this stuff is more complicated than we generally like to think . . .

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  16. They may say that about the veils but I wonder if they really believe it. We tend to rationalize that things we're truly stuck with are actually ok. Why not wear the veil in Europe if it's more empowering and cuts down on the "male gaze"? Plenty of Muslim women choose to do that right here at home.

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  17. Joe - Most do continue to wear it in Europe, but some don't. The reasoning for that, is that the gaze of Western men is so corrupt and hyper-sexualised, that wearing the veil only heightens their curiosity, plus draws attention to oneself, since you now stand out from the other women. It's complicated.

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  18. Cycling Peppy (the cat-1 specialist time trialist)June 20, 2011 at 8:59 PM

    It's true! Whenever I have to compete in the Saudi world, I have to wear this http://1389blog.com/pix/AfghaniGirlKitteh-ht-BuddyG.jpg which as you imagine is not so aero. My average time-trial speed falls way down to 35mph.

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  19. Peppy - There is now an athletic hijab available to solve that problem. Not sure whether it comes in your size though.

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  20. Such a interesting topic. I'm not sure that one more middle aged white guys opinion is necessary here but it hit too close to home to pass up.

    First, the Saudi climate. I've never been there but I grew up in South Texas and the temps are in the same end of the misery spectrum. The people who needed to and the people who got something valuable out of riding a bike just did it. But the heat makes it an activity that is so far from the mainstream that trying to "sell" it as something beneficial to the masses is kinda silly.

    I also know a few Iraqi and Iranian Women who live in the States and they mostly reflect the opinion that there are freedoms in their cultures that North American Women don't enjoy. High on the list is the freedom from being sexualized to some degree in almost every social context. Conservative Mennonite Women and Amish Women have a lot to say about this as well.

    The things that appear purely restrictive to those outside the culture usually have some good and beneficial intent at the root. People see the limits that Mennonites and Amish set up in some areas of life and it all looks hypocritical and arbitrary, and while there is some of that in all social constructs, there is the underlying intention of not letting the parts of the culture that are at odds with ones beliefs have access to every part of our lives. All limits are arbitrary, the limits we put on public dress here in the U.S. seem prudish to some and like no limits at all to others. We let Women and Black people and those who don't own land vote but a 20 year old can't buy a drink. I know people who find both sides of that crazy.

    Bicycles are definitely seen by Old Order Mennonite Women as freeing and a way to extend ones range of movement without creating the conflicts and temptations to remove oneself from the Family and Community that a car creates. Amish Women would be more likely to see cycling as "immodest" and liable to remove one from the center of the family based community that they have decided is the most important thing. A movement to try to get the Amish to accept bikes would probably be greeted with almost universal frustration that people don't understand what is truly important to them. A movement to prohibit bikes from Mennonites would be seen in almost the same terms. Weird, eh.

    The Women in both groups would wonder how some of us in mainstream culture can allow our Daughters to paddle around in even the shallow end of the pool of commercialized sexuality...Bikes can't define any of this, but the freedom to move around independently seems to be central to it no matter where you are.

    Spindizzy

    Dang this got too long...

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  21. And then there's the Wal Mart decision handed down today by USA Supreme Court...

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  22. Joe and Velouria, When I was in Turkey, I got even more attention, some of it unwanted, from men when I wore a headscarf than when I didn't.

    As for the cycling issue: It seems to me that women in that part of the world wouldn't see cycling as a means of empowerment, unless they were allowed to do it but not to drive.

    And Lucienrau makes an excellent point about separate facilities. We never have to think about that issue in the US or Europe, so we take it for granted that we can just stop at a cafe or 7-11 to do whatever we need to do. That is definitely not the case even in Turkey, which is probably the most secular country in the region. I've never been to Saudi Arabia, but from what I've heard, it makes Turkey seem like the Netherlands by comparison.

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  23. So wait, women can't drive or ride a bicycle because the government wants to prevent them from having the power to go anywhere? But they allow women to take the bus, hire a taxi and ride on the train, right? Does not compute.

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  24. "Velouria said...
    Walt - Quite a few women I know from that area would not agree, and believe their countries are more progressive and pro-women than the US and Western Europe. (snip) "

    This topic is food for a very healthy discussion that is outside of cycling and this blog.

    Sure you wanna go there?

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  25. Walt - I am neutral about wanting to go there. Also, I am not presenting what I wrote as my own opinion, just something I hear.

    Hitchhiker - It's actually even more complicated than that. As I understand it, it is not the government but the religious establishment that forbids it. But the religious establishment has power of arrest just like the government. And the government does not have the power to override a religious decree. I am not informed enough to go beyond that, but if you look it up you'll see what I mean.

    Traveling anywhere alone, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative is not permitted. Bus, train, walking - nothing. If you're a woman going to school, or to your friend's house, you need to be taken there and then picked up. Oddly, hiring a driver is permitted and that driver is always male. Not sure how they get around that, since essentially the woman is left alone in a car with an unrelated man and all sorts of things could happen. Unless drivers are required to be eunuchs, which I highly doubt.

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  26. "Velouria said...
    Unless drivers are required to be eunuchs, which I highly doubt."

    Oh my..........:^() :^()

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  27. Quick question- do you know what movie that still you got from Bikehugger is from? It was in the loop of bike movie scenes that David Byrne played before his talk, and I think I saw a clip of it once before. Google is failing me (as is the bikehugger search function) but I'd really like to track it down.

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  28. I wanted to ask this too! The link underneath the image will take you to the BikeHugger post that I lifted it from, but he does not cite the original source either.

    Anybody know?

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  29. In Morocco I think its generally OK for women to ride bicycles but clothing should be modest. Showing lots of skin (by anyone actually) is considered rude. Coastal towns and cities are fairly temperate, not hot for much of the year. Interior cities like Marrakech can be hot in summer but actually quite cool for much of the year. Most women I see riding in any region of the country are European/western. Donkey carts and scooters are for everybody though! Even in Morocco its not uncommon to see packs of roadies go by, and cycling teams out training, just like here. I love it! I recommend road riding in the hills around the southern coastal city of Agadir, so pretty! Then relax at the beach with a cup of Moroccan whiskey (i.e. mint tea, sorry).

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  30. The Quran doesn't explicitly require women to be veiled, but instead says both sexes should be modest in dress (yes it does say both!). In theory, it is to discourage the male gaze and more liberal Muslim countries it's up to the woman if she wants to veil herself. Other countries ban women from driving, because there's no reason they need to drive (women must have a male chaperone when out in public, so therefore she always has a driver). They also make it impossible to go anywhere without a chaperone, requiring women to even cover the bridge of their nose so that only their eyes are visible severely compromising their vision.

    They are so brave in their protest, no matter what method or strategy they use.

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  31. These ridiculous Muslims make me so angry.

    I have absolutely NO time for their female controlling, backward woman owning nonsense.

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