Trying to forbid girls and women from riding bikes is nothing new.
Female cyclists have a hard enough time – we are generally a bit more safety-conscious and reticent when it comes to getting out on city streets, and the athletic among us who do fearlessly dive into bike racing and other cycling sports do so with less support or acknowledgment from the rest of the sporting world than men cyclists get. So the last thing a female cyclist needs is a fatwa – a ruling on a point of Islamic law.
However, two reports from the Indian city of Mumbai indicate that a Muslim seminary has issued an edict against girls over the age of 13 riding bikes as it is “bound to result in undue exposure” as it is difficult while cycling to completely cover oneself with veil, burqa, or headscarf.
Trying to forbid girls and women from riding bikes is nothing new. Back in the days of Biking 1.0, women cyclists were initially seen as ridiculous, and satirists of the day lampooned them for wanting the freedom to bike that men had. More recently, places from North Korea to Iran to Saudi Arabia have tried to keep women from riding, either because non-restrictive clothing was considered indecent, or because religious interests thought the bike gave too much physical freedom.
This oil painting by Vita Di Milano is from “Women and Wheels” dedicated to “women’s freedom from the dogmas and the doctrines of religion.”
The response to the edict, issued by the Darul Uloom seminary (madrasah) that is part of the Deoband movement of Sunni Islamics in Deoband, India, was general condemnation. The All Indian Muslim Women Personal Law Board said Muslim girls from rural areas would be hard put to attend school without the aid of a bicycle. This particular seminary has been criticized before for its edicts against women working, modelling, or wearing jeans. Perhaps the fatwa itself is in part a reaction to the move in some European nations to outlaw the head-to-toe niqab worn by some Muslim women.
“In times when we have women pilots and army officers, stopping girls from riding bicycles is bizarre and unreasonable,” said Roop Rekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University.
Another commentator and cyclist, Nigar Ataulla, believes women should be given the right to cycle and to wear what they want. If anyone wants to cycle in a niqab, she says, they’ll figure out how to make it work. Seems sensible.
Hopefully, this fatwa won’t stop a single woman from cycling, a healthy and low carbon form of transport. Though women aren’t forbidden to ride in most of the world, there still are hurdles that keep the ratio of men-to-women cyclists abnormally skewed toward the males. Slow food gets respect, but slow cycling? The style-over-speed pace that many (not all) women would prefer is still subtly stigmatized on lots of bike paths.
In addition, bike prejudice still exists, and equal rights for cyclists are not a foregone conclusion – witness the attempts to ban biking in St. Charles County in Missouri, and the already existing ban in Black Hawk, Colorado.