Like many female cyclists I’ve read stories about the barriers women in middle eastern countries have overcome to ride a bike like this all women’s cycling team in Afghanistan. But I’ve never really thought about the barriers that confront Muslim women in Australia and other western nations, and prevent them from enjoying simple joys like cycling.
A couple of months ago I met a young Muslim women called Assmaah through the shop where I work and have since seen her out on her bike. She told me about a group of primarily Muslim women cyclists called Sydney Cycling Sisters and I was intrigued. I sent through a few questions and Assmaah and the founder of the group Cindy Rahal responded with some very interesting answers.
Q: How and why did you start riding?
A: Cindy has always loved bike riding and grew up riding around the block with her brothers and cousins. This passion continued into adult hood as she continued to ride for leisure. So when she was required to research a Western Sydney University Occupational therapy topic based on the concept “Change the world one Occupational Therapist at a time”, the idea of using cycling to promote an inclusive environment for Muslim women was the obvious choice.
Q: Why did you start Sydney Cycling Sisters?
A: In 2014, University of Western Sydney Occupational Therapy student, Cindy Rahal decided to examine the issue of Islamophobia and its effect on Muslim women as they go about their day-to-day activities. She was aware that Muslim women increasingly had to modify their activities in light of the growing number of harassment incidents and attacks.
Many women said they were reluctant to be ‘out and about’ unescorted by male relatives and this was having an impact on their mental health. Women were also concerned about exercising alone so a cycling group was set up for Muslim women – and women in general – so they could feel safe and supported while undertaking leisure activities such as cycling.
Q: Do you find it restrictive to ride bikes in a head scarf and loose fitting clothing?
A: Riding in the hijab (islamic dress code and head covering) is not restrictive at all. The challenge is finding something that is sweat wicking and breathable while still adhering to the dress code. We’re in the process of having a jersey designed that fulfils our needs but it’s proving to be an expensive project. We’re looking for people out there to help us fund the creation of these jerseys.
Q: Have your been criticised for forming the group/riding a bike by your own community or by other groups?
A: Not at all. In fact we have received overwhelming support from a variety of our community members including community leaders and organisations (Sydney Muslim Cyclists, Lebanese Muslim Association and more). When we decided to do the MS Gong Ride we managed to raised over $7,000 between 5 members. We even had a community organisation offer to create a promotional video for us that can be used to encourage women from diverse communities to take up cycling!
Q: How many women ride with you and why?
A: Many women have expressed interest in getting back into cycling but are often hesitant due to varying challenges such as: dress code, juggling family, work and study commitments, as well as finding a group that will motivate them. Women join our rides for all sorts of reasons; health benefits, the social factor and the desire to try something new and exciting with other like-minded women; as well as encouragement from their family. The coffee stop post or mid-ride is also quite an enticing reward.
The numbers vary depending on the type of ride and the time. In total we have about 80 women who have signed up and expressed interest. During our monthly beginner rides we will have about 15-20 women on average attend with some of their children, and on our weekly more experienced rides will have about 5 or 6. We’re definitely keen on more women to join us, and more women to lead and organise rides and discover new bike routes.
Q: What do you think we can do to encourage more women of all types to ride bikes?
A: There a few factors that could encourage women from all backgrounds and abilities to ride bikes, which includes:
- Inclusive support networks
- Empowerment programs that build confidence in cycling and maintenance
- Affordable bikes
- More scenic and safe tracks that provide bike hire.