Yes unfortunately, you read that correctly. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a legal ruling banning women from cycling in public places – his fatwa was passed over concerns of women’s chastity. According to Khamenei, “riding a bicycle attracts the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption.” I ask this, if a man’s intentions can become impure or to put it more bluntly – seduced and corrupted – by watching women cycling, then are these men safe to roam the streets? What else do they have to give up so that society becomes “less corrupt”? – sports, running, driving? Should Iran also create separate footpaths for women and men? To me this fatwa is regressive. To say that women cycling on the streets “exposes the society to corruption” is no different than pointing an accusatory finger at a victim in court. The fatwa gives permission to blame woman. Should anything happen to a woman whilst cycling, then the blame falls upon her for not complying with the country’s modesty code.
Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad manages the online social movement My Stealthy Freedom and has started a campaign against the ban. She told me that cycling has always been a controversial topic in Iran and although there is no penalty imposed under Iran’s legal laws, its modesty laws are used against women who cycle in public. However, women of Iran are refusing to comply with this new ban. They are taking a stand and documenting themselves while cycling in public and encouraging others to do the same. The hashtag #IranianWomenLoveCycling was created to showcase their protesting efforts. In one video, a daughter and her mother explain their response to the fatwa: “Once we heard what’s going on, we immediately rented 2 bicycles. It’s our absolute right and we’re not going to give up.”
Another woman posted a video of herself cycling, her face covered with a Bandana and sunglasses (presumably to keep her identity safe). She introduces herself as a 25-year-old from Shiraz and had a question for the cleric. “Was it really necessary to declare this decree… now that it has been a few years that the Iranian people have got used to the idea of seeing women biking with an open mind and acceptance?”
“I’ve received messages from inside Iran from women who are shocked and want to protest”, explains Alinejad. “Women in Iran want to be active in society but for the clerics that’s the big threat because in their eyes, women should not be seen nor heard, stuck in the kitchen.” “Women send their photos and videos to my campaign saying that they continue to ride. I strongly believe that these acts will bring change. Women are the main agents of change and as they push for equality we see greater push back from the Islamic Republic. The fight for equality is a historical process and just in the same way that women succeeded in Europe and the US to win their rights, so will women in Iran.” So what should happen next? What is the alternative? A sensible solution would be to let women cycle and punish those that want to abuse the law, because they will do this with or without a bike being involved. But a ridiculous ruling must be matched with an equally ridiculous solution – ban men from walking near women and staring at woman. Make them wear eye masks in public and let us watch how corruption will change.