Cycling against societal prejudice in Egypt

Cycling against societal prejudice in Egypt

The Cairo Cycling Geckos bike through the streets of Cairo distributing humanitarian aid in underprivileged neighbourhoods while promoting cycling, especially for women.

(Hossam Rabie)

“Look! Who are those girls on bicycles coming towards us?” an incredulous Oum Ayman asks her friends in the village of Abou Serag in Sharqia, about 80 kilometres north of Cairo in the Nile Delta.

A crowd forms in front of the red brick houses at the entrance of Abou Serag. The women of the village, who wear veils and the traditional Egyptian galabeya, stare at the 20 or so young women in jeans, hair blowing in the wind, as they approach. It’s a strange scene for this poor village where none of the women have ever ridden a bicycle.

Followed by a car full of clothing, shoes and blankets and accompanied by four young men, these young women chose this village to distribute gifts to women on the occasion of Mother’s Day, celebrated in Egypt on 21 March. They’ve barely begun to distribute the gifts when several dozen young men arrive on motorcycles and surround the them. Though some of the women are visibly uncomfortable, most are now used to the kinds of reactions their presence provokes. A few men and women from the village offer to help go door to door to distribute clothing.

Ever since the government’s decision to cancel fuel subsidies in 2014 to reduce the budget deficit, more and more young people have taken to cycling. Female cyclists, however, continue to be a minority. In 2016, Nouran Salah decided to do something about this by founding the group Cairo Cycling Geckos to encourage Egyptian women to cycle while also transporting humanitarian aid to refugees and the poorest Egyptians.

“I really like walking but I get harassed all the time. Things got worse when I decided to buy a bike,” says Nouran, a 27-year-old architect who lives in Cairo. “People whistle at me or make obscene remarks when they see me on my bicycle.”

Nouran decided that cycling in a group of other women was the best way to avoid harassment. It all started with a message published on her Facebook wall. “A girl cycling through busy streets in defiance of social conventions is risky business. For me the solution was to form a group,” she explains.

The scourge of sexual harassment

A 2017 study published by UN Women revealed that 60 per cent of women in Egypt had experienced some form of sexual harassment over the course of the previous year. Other surveys estimate that as many as 99 per cent of Egyptian women have been the victims of street harassment at some point in their lives.

Nouran founded a Facebook group for the Cairo Cycling Geckos as a tool for young women to organise bicycle rides through the streets of the Egyptian megalopolis of 25 million inhabitants. They receive support from the association Bicycletta, which hires out bicycles at low costs for women’s rides.

In 2016, during the month of Ramadan, Nouran took her bicycle and her backpack to distribute meals prepared by Syrian women refugees in Egypt. When her project attracted dozens of other women, she decided to expand her group’s activities by going to the slums of Cairo to distribute aid financed by various associations and individuals.

“I want to show people that this sport can also serve society. A bicycle and a few products are enough to do some good,” explains Nouran.

Since founding the group, two bicycle rides a month have been organised in the poorest neighbourhoods of Cairo, as well as in more remote villages. In 2018, Nouran focused her efforts on assistance for Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Egypt. “We give them clothing, blankets and basic food items,” she says.

Visiting the slums is not easy for girls on bicycles and they often face intimidation from young men. But they never let it stop them from distributing all of the aid. “The situation is tense when we arrive. Some young men try to intimidate us. But when they realise that we just want to distribute humanitarian aid they leave us alone,” she explains.

Strengthening the presence of women in the public sphere

“We receive more than 200 requests for every bicycle ride from girls who want to participate,” says Nouran, who chooses only 30 women for each ride to avoid causing traffic congestion.

For Nouran, encouraging young women to ride bicycles through the streets and slums reinforces the presence of women in public spaces. “That’s the main purpose. I’m trying to change the mentality of both men and women in Egypt and get people used to seeing girls on bicycles.”

But according to Amina al-Halwany, a 24-year-old marketing assistant who joined the Cairo Cycling Geckos in late 2016, it isn’t always easy for girls to convince their families to join the group.

“My family thinks that a girl riding a bicycle down the street is responsible for the harassment she experiences. They always tell me to respect the traditions of society.”

Amina, a resident of the upscale neighbourhood of Dokki, was able to convince her family to join the young women in distributing aid to the poor without having to get on a bicycle. A month later, Amina bought herself a bicycle for her birthday, claiming that it was a gift from a friend.

“My mother was shocked. She started yelling at me and told me to give the bike back to my friend,” says Amina. After pleading with her mother, she was finally allowed to keep the bicycle under the condition that she only ride it close to the family house – a condition she has managed to overcome with time.

Harassers in the streets go so far as to endanger the cyclists who dare to challenge social norms. “One day a driver intentionally hit my bicycle with his car and told me it was a warning to never drive in the street again,” says Amina.

Changing attitudes in the slums

Helping poor people and marginalised communities was one of the main reasons that motivated Amina to join Nouran. “The problem is that people in the slums live in a bubble and we live in a different bubble. People aren’t trying to understand one another,” she says.

But such encounters are not always welcomed by the inhabitants of poorer neighbourhoods who are accustomed to being looked down upon and mistreated in the deeply classist Egyptian society. When Amina went to the Cairo slum of Boulaq on 19 April to distribute aid, some of the women there insulted the group because they had not all received an equal amount of aid.

On other occasions, women have rushed the aid convoy and, after being served, have been hostile to what they see as the young rich women on bicycles. The Cairo Cycling Geckos certainly didn’t imagine that their initiative would hit such a nerve with regard to growing social inequality in Egypt and the anger that it can generate.

“People who live in the slums think that rich people are responsible for their misery,” says Amina. “By continuing to visit these neighbourhoods, we could have a long-term impact on changing these deeply-rooted beliefs,” she adds.

For Oum Shahenda, a 35-year-old vegetable seller and mother-of-six, seeing girls on bicycles initially shocked her. She had never seen anything like it in her neighbourhood. “People from outside [the slum of Boulaq] think that our neighbourhood is filled with criminals. They’re afraid to come near us or come into our neighbourhood. That’s why people here are shocked to see girls on bicycles in the streets,” she explains. Shahenda lives with her large family in a small, run down room, like most of the residents of her neighbourhood. For her, the kind of assistance provided by the Cairo Cycling Geckos is essential for her family since the Egyptian state has not made sufficient efforts to develop her neighbourhood.

Despite all the difficulties they face, Nouran and the Cairo Cycling Geckos want to continue their bicycle trips far from their zones of comfort in the hope that in the long run, the women of the slums will come to share their passion for cycling without the fear of being harassed.

This story has been translated from French.