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The freedom to ride a bicycle is a simple pleasure most of us take for granted. For some women, though, it isn’t quite so simple.
Iran may have fielded a national women’s cycling team for many years now, but take to the streets on two wheels and life can quickly get complicated. Especially since leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa in 2016 explicitly banning women from cycling in public. Enforcement has been patchy, with many rebelling against the oppressive rule, but not without cost. A cost that one Iranian female cyclist is determined to shine a light on.
The name of this article’s author has been withheld and some details have been altered to protect her from the potential repercussions of speaking out. This is her story.
When I was little my father bought me a red bike. He ran along with his hand on the back of the seat until I could ride freely without help. Then his guiding hand left, but his support and encouragement remained.
I was a girl in a country where the rules are so very different if you are female, though from him at least there was no telling me to stop doing the things that gave me joy. As other family members expressed concern about my rebellious upbringing, he would instead express pride at my abilities.
My father had wanted to become a sportsman when he was younger but because of poverty he had to go to work and couldn’t continue with sport. He wanted things to be different for me; to remove the obstacles and give me all the facilities, support and encouragement I needed to be successful.
It felt like anything was possible from the freedom and security of my childhood, when I had a father to watch over me and I could ride with the wind in my hair and not worry about people staring. That is a freedom and sense of security I can now only look back on longingly.
When I grew up I lost it all.
“The shame of this family”
As I started to get older, even my father’s strong support wavered sometimes, as the challenges I would face because of my gender became ever more tangible. Worried about me, he initially objected when I decided to buy a bicycle to compete on. But by then my determination to ride and compete had been set. Skimping on lunches and stashing my bus money I unwaveringly saved for a year and a half to buy a bike to race on the track.
My parents came to see my first competition — parents are the only spectators allowed at the ladies’ track — and I can still hear their shouts and applause as I passed them each lap. From then my father would take me to training every single day and even once sat on the back of the referee’s motorcycle during a time trial, encouraging me all the way as I rode to victory.
But then he got ill, gravely ill.
The doctor told us there wasn’t much we could do, and he wouldn’t live for long. This left me thunderstruck for a moment, but then I realised the tables had turned. It was now my turn to offer a supporting hand. I would give him an arm to hold onto as he struggled to walk, I’d help him chase the best treatments, and I’d be there for him, encouraging him not to give up or give in.
But in the end there was nothing we could do to keep him with us. He fell into a coma and died.
Life was lonely without my father, and even though I was 25 his passing meant my grandfather was now my supervisor. A supervisor who wanted to find me a husband as soon as possible and put an end to the cycling that in his words made me “the shame of this family”.
Stopping, though, wasn’t an option. The bike was what gave me the calmness and comfort I needed to go on. I’d go very early in the morning and return home before anyone woke up, so my relatives didn’t realise I was absent.
Looking to the end of the road or the top of the hill as I rode I would see my father standing there. I would cycle with all my strength in order to reach him, but he wasn’t there. Instead I would look up to the sky and talk to him.
In fact I’ve never stopped looking up and talking to him, saying: “Look at me, I’m still fighting. Help me from up there and be proud of me.”
Given what I have had to face I needed him on my side.
Treated like a criminal just for riding a bike
I have cycled in Tehran’s streets for many years even though it was forbidden for ladies. Usually I would train and cycle on the outskirts of the city where the police presence was far smaller, and I would be less likely to get into trouble. But I was caught by police on many occasions. I escaped most of the time.
The boy cyclists used to tell me, “you have good co-ordination”. I owe this skill to the police — I learnt it when they were chasing me in the car and I used my bike riding to escape.
But there were times when they caught me. It was as though they had caught a thief. They would push me into their car, shouting, with several police women guarding me till we got to a police station. One time they even threw my bike in the street — even then I stuck to my bike and wouldn’t let go of it. But there were four men and two women. Obviously, I had to give in and they took me to the police station.
God knows what one goes through. They shout at you, calling you bad names, pushing you in front of everybody. You don’t know where they’ll take you. You don’t know what they’ll do to you. It is frightening.
They wrote my name and identity on a white board and made me stand in front of a wall that showed my height while they took a photo of me.
They kept shouting at me the whole time, saying that I wasn’t abiding by the law and that I was a bad girl. They took my signature and made me promise not to ride my bike again.
The big lie
Society seemed to be just as strongly against me cycling as my grandfather. Every time I was caught by police I was most worried about what to tell him.
One time when the police caught me they took my only ID card and didn’t give it back to me until three years later. It was then that I became the most deplorable girl of the family and our district, at least in the eyes of others. From my point of view, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. That’s why, after 12 years, I’m still living this way and riding my bike.
But it hasn’t been easy.
It’s now more than a decade since my father’s death and I haven’t been seeing him much at the top of the hill or in my dreams. I worry that maybe he is not proud. Perhaps he is as upset with me for continuing to ride as everyone else seems to be.
At one point recently doubts started to creep in. I became tired of fighting and gave in. I didn’t even look at my bike let alone ride it.
My family praised me for my decision, telling me that I was finally grown up. I became ever more depressed and nothing made me happy until I again turned back to the bike.
I think to myself that maybe my biggest wish and desire is to have the common routine lifestyle of a girl in Europe — cycling every day without worrying about police, her outfit, the stares, or what the consequences will be of her mere presence on the roads.
Iranian women and girls are being invited to the Iranian National team in order to show the world that we have no problem with ladies’ sport in Iran. It’s a big lie! It’s not just cycling that’s forbidden for women — dancing, singing and playing music are forbidden too. That’s why I don’t feel happy and full of life. I feel like a dead person.
If only I could go back to that feeling I had in my childhood. Cycling with no worries. Feeling my hair moving freely in the wind. Feeling that I’m still alive and that there is still someone up there who can hear me and make my dreams come true …