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How Cairo’s Women Cyclists Are Claiming Their Urban Space

October 26, 2019
A young woman cycling on the streets of Cairo. (Photo by Mohamed El Shahed/AFP)

Earlier this year, the Egyptian government rolled out a national campaign, A Bicycle for Every Citizen, to promote cycling culture and healthy living and to reduce carbon emissions and fuel consumption. In addition to changing Egypt’s transport culture, the initiative would see the government subsidize bicycles to get more Egyptians cycling.

Despite the sound logic and valid policy objectives behind the government’s initiative, it is unlikely that all Egyptians will switch to cycling, and not just due to Egypt’s crumbling infrastructure and urban planning shortcomings, which the plan completely fails to address. Given the announcement’s gendered language and the use of the masculine form of citizen in Arabic, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the government means to exclude women entirely from the proposed measure—or the definition of the word citizen, for that matter.

“The government is promoting cycling for everyone, so they are selling the bikes for the same price for both genders, but if they [were] more serious about it, they [would] highlight the gender equality aspect, but I don’t think they really care. It is just a [PR stunt], the bikes aren’t affordable anyways,” 27-year-old architect Nouran Salah tells Egyptian Streets.

Salah turned to cycling for urban transportation in 2015 and, a year later, she launched Cairo Cycling Geckos, a cycling group that organizes trips to deliver aid to underprivileged communities across Egypt and encourage more women and girls to do the same. “People whistle at me or make obscene remarks when they see me on my bicycle,” she revealed in a June 2019 interview with Equal Times. “A girl cycling through busy streets in defiance of social conventions is risky business. For me the solution was to form a group.”

Young women cycling as part of a Cairo Cycling Geckos group ride (Photo courtesy of Cairo Cycling Geckos/Facebook)

To truly understand Egypt’s warped gender politics, one must first go on a leisurely stroll in its capital. Despite being a somewhat secular and cosmopolitan city, Cairo’s urban spaces grow more hostile and inhospitable to women by the day due to rampant sexual harassment and a general attitude of laissez-faire towards the issue by law enforcement and society as a whole. “For women, …cycling is something we do without letting our guard down. You have to be alert and I often opt for using headphones and blasting music, so I won’t have to deal with the comments I get, which is ridiculous because it also means I can’t [hear] the cars around me and rely only on my [eyes], which is unsafe,” explains Egyptian adventurer Hamsa Mansour.

At its core, this street culture is yet another manifestation of a greater problem: patriarchy and the collective obsession with women’s bodily autonomy, which minimizes their visibility and objectifies them either by hypersexualizing or sanctifying and chastising them. For instance, many in Egypt still believe that women and even little girls shouldn’t ride bicycles because it might cause their hymens to break. This, coupled with the general hostility towards women in public spaces, automatically makes the simple act of riding a bike to work a radical and costly decision for many women in Egypt.

“When my father found out that I was going to buy a bike, he called me and we got into an argument. He told me I couldn’t do it. To him, it wasn’t really about me being a woman, he just didn’t think it was safe—that people would harass or even be aggressive towards me,” 24-year-old actress and social media executive Salma Maher recounts.

She bought a bicycle anyway and has been using it for over a year now. “He still doesn’t know about it and I don’t know how to confront him because I don’t know how to prove him wrong—our streets aren’t safe anyway, even if I walk or drive everywhere, and he gets really worried about me,” she explains.

Egyptian women cycling to raise awareness about breast cancer which affects 17.8 percent of Egyptian women. (Photo courtesy of Bike Land)

Like all socio-cultural issues, the degree to which problematic attitudes—namely religious bigotry, homophonia, transphobia, and sexism—are upheld among certain communities in Egypt is greatly influenced by their level of education and cultural awareness. In Egyptian society, this almost always denotes wealth and economic privilege due to the cost of quality education. It is in these little social bubbles that many women often find refuge.

For Cairo-based performance artist Rana Khodair, however, cycling within the confines of an affluent gated residential compound was neither radical nor urban. “Ironically, it was not as encouraging,” she says.

It wasn’t until after she made the move to Downtown Cairo that Khodair began to fully rely on her bicycle for transportation. “I would say that it has been very liberating, I would get [cheering] reactions—I would hear it from someone [whom] I imagine would say something to hurt me if I was walking,” she remarks.

But in Cairo’s politically-charged climate, women’s bodies are battlefields and their outward appearances are a form of social shorthand. In a society so segregated by class issues and marred by economic inequality, women’s attire is a marker of social status that also serves as an indicator of their place on the political spectrum and the social capital they wield. “[When biking], I make the choice to behave a specific way and dress in specific forms that automatically categorize me as a foreigner, or what I used to think was an untouchable woman,” she explains. “I also had moments of tension, when I would be referenced to as [a Sisi supporter]… It would always be interesting to see how they would [peg you as] because they’re constantly trying to do that.”

For Mansour, who cycled from Cairo to Nuweiba, the experience outside the city was entirely different. “The people I met on the [road] were very supportive and encouraging, a lot of people offered [me] water and made sure I don’t need anything and that I’m okay,” she says. “I felt very safe on the road, met amazing people and had a lot of conversations about what I’m doing and [about] life. Contrary to how I feel in Cairo, I didn’t face [any] gender based-discrimination or challenges on the road.”

For Passant Hafez, however, who used to work as a delivery person, the public’s perception of female cyclists in Cairo is changing. “When I used to cycle in 2011 and 2012, I thought I was unique. People would be surprised when they found out I rode a bicycle,” she remarks. “Now, people in Cairo see that it is normal [for a woman] to use a bicycle.”

It is often said that decay is the hallmark of a great city and there is no greater metropolis than Cairo. It is a city that has survived its brutal history, owns up to its own moral and urban planning failures, and continues to challenge the laws of physics in its ceaseless expansion. But hard places breed hard men and even harder women. A Cairene woman leaving her house can expect anything from verbal harassment and stern looks, all the way to sexual assault, but she braves it all the same.

With a political leadership that continues to fail women, female cyclists are taking it upon themselves to make the streets of Cairo safer and friendlier to women and girls. “I think women get encouraged when they see other women cycling, they start asking about the experience and they understand it is doable. Some people start with cycling in groups and organized rides as it makes them feel safer. I believe that safer streets and generally empowering women is where we start,” Mansour explains.

Empowering a woman to run for president or inspiring girls to pursue the hard sciences starts not in the classroom, but on the streets. “When I’m stopped at a traffic light, I’m thinking I’m just basically existing… I reclaim my space by being visible,” Khodair explains. “Their eyes have seen you, so you’ve been replicated in their minds one way or another, whether they like it or not.”

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