Photo: Nora Zukker

Breaking News: Girl rides bike

In 2012, settling back into Los Angeles after traveling abroad for a few years, I decided to do the unthinkable for an Angelino: become a bike commuter. Despite the increasing interest in cycling, the number of cycling work commuters in L.A. remains a tiny fraction: less than one percent. If the numbers don’t say much, people’s startled reactions to learning that I didn’t own a car and commuted by bike definitely reaffirmed that my decision was an anomaly.

In Berlin, where I had spent the last three months before returning to L.A., it is pretty much the opposite. Everyone I met owned at least one bike. About 500,000 daily bike riders account for 18% of total traffic. People from all walks of life ride bikes: women, men, toddlers, elderly, blue-collar workers, business professionals – you get the picture.  But after two months, not once did I see a hijab-wearing woman on a bicycle. In Kreuzberg and Neukölln, the areas where I was staying, there were many hijab-clad young girls and women out and about every day. A good portion of Berlin’s 200,000 Muslims live in these communities.

My local friends attested to this same observation, although it seemed not to have occurred to them to notice before I asked them.  I was more keenly aware, due to the fact that I was forbidden to ride a bike growing up, and had never seen any of the women in my Muslim Yemeni family do so either. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from villages in Yemen, where conservative values of extreme gender inequality are the norm.  They were raised to believe it was improper for girls to ride bikes, that bicycle riding was ‘un-Islamic’ and posed a threat to a girl’s virginity, her ‘highest virtue’. Of course neither of these beliefs is true, but some social stigmas are stubborn.

To this day, it is highly taboo for a woman to be seen riding a bicycle in places such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. A headline last year, “Shock and Controversy as Women in Yemen Ride Bikes” referred to a protest ride that 14 women turned up for: only four knew how to ride bikes.

These sentiments came right back to mind while I was in Berlin, inspiring a little experiment. During my final week there, I asked some friends to don hijabs with me before setting out on our bikes for a few rides in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. At moments, these rides were uncomfortable: the disapproving faces of onlookers and disparaging comments directed at us made the stigma feel pretty clear.  But it was also a bit exhilarating, at least to the little girl in me who had been forbidden from riding a bicycle.

To be clear, I wasn’t expecting to affect any sort of change with these rides or to impose my own unsolicited ideas of ‘liberation’. My time (and my visa) ran out before I got a chance to find out why the girls and women in these communities did not ride bikes.  I was certainly curious though. Had I been able to stay in Berlin longer, I would have liked to engage with them directly to find out. Of course, if they wanted to learn to ride, I would have been more than happy to teach them.

What is obvious to me now is how this experience influenced my decision to get a bike when I returned to the U.S., a rebellious act of completely different nature: defying L.A.’s dominant car culture.