By Violet Rusu
A women’s cycling movement has taken Iran by storm after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a controversial fatwa banning women from riding their bikes in public spaces. The fatwa was issued on September 10, 2016, following a No Car Day campaign that encouraged citizens, including women, to bicycle instead of driving.
Khamenei told State Media, "Riding bicycles often attracts the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption, and thus contravenes women's chastity, and it must be abandoned."
Despite the religious ban, women are risking danger by continuing to ride their bikes around different areas of the country and post photographs of themselves doing so on social media, a campaign encouraged by Iranian activist and journalist, Mahshid Alinejad. The cyber movement has seen support from women all over the world, using the hashtag #IranianWomenLoveCycling.
Iran is one of the world’s most oppressive countries for freedom of expression and press freedoms. Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran 169th out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists Iran as the seventh most censored country in the world. Last year Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on Iran, said that human rights conditions are worsening in Iran under President Hassan Rouhani. The UN expert specifically argued that Iranian authorities “continue to harass, arrest, prosecute and imprison many members of society who express criticism of the government or publicly deviate from officially sanctioned narratives.”
Women's rights are severely restricted in Iran, across all strata of society and in all aspects of life, from health care to free expression rights. Human Rights Watch notes that women have been sent to jail simply for publicly speaking out in favor of equal rights for women. The fatwa against women riding bicycles is representative of the wider repression faced by women across Iran.
A week prior to issuing the fatwa, Khamenei published on his website that women need only be concerned with housekeeping and motherhood, as that is their main “role and mission.” Gender equality is something that is virtually unheard of in Iran and goes far beyond the cycling ruling. A woman must obtain the approval of her husband to travel outside the country; women are banned from entering sports stadiums as spectators; and according to Iranian law, women must obey the mandatory hijab—or they face 10 days to two months jail time or a fine of up to 500,000 rials. Punishments for “bad hijab” have been as brutal as public lashings and acid attacks that have left women permanently disfigured.
Morality police employed by the regime patrol the streets of Iran to ensure women are dressed morally. In April of this year, 7,000 male and female undercover officers were deployed and work mostly in Tehran to ensure women are dressed modestly.
For women inside Iran, breaking the biking fatwa could mean facing the risk of an arrest. Earlier in July, a woman was threatened with prosecution by authorities after participating in a bicycle marathon in Marivan, Iran.
“Khamenei’s remarks and fatwa banning women's bicycling reveals the backward nature of Iran’s fundamentalist rulers and arouses only the contempt of the Iranian people, particularly women,” said Elaheh Arj of the National Council of Resistance in Iran’s women’s committee.
“When the head of the regime desperately introduces such a fatwa against women, it is mocked as such a ridiculous fatwa should be.”
Cycling for women in Iran is permissible even by Sharia law, making this fatwa more representative of the regime’s interest in the oppression of women rather than a concern about female cyclists.
Violet Rusu is a volunteer for CJFE and a freelance political journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @RusuViolet.