On a bright autumn afternoon in Istanbul’s trendy Kadikoy district, an unusual crowd of cyclists gathered at the district’s square by the Bosporus, overlooking the historic mosques and buildings of the city’s skyline. As the curious people passing by studied and took photos of the balloons, glitter and other ornaments on the bikes, hundreds of meticulously dressed women hit the pedals of their bikes as the clocks struck 3pm.
Cycling for miles together by Istanbul’s turquoise coastline, they weren’t alone: Thousands of women in 25 other provinces in Turkey were doing exactly the same — wearing their best dresses, flowers in their hair and even optional high-heels, to hit the streets on wheels.
For many of these women, who call themselves “Fancy Women on Bikes”, cycling wasn’t always a natural part of their urban existence. In fact, Sema Gur, who initiated this movement, didn’t know how to ride a bicycle until the age of 38.
“My friends used to invite me to cycling trips in nature. I would join them, but follow them with my car. It was slightly embarrassing,” she said.
When she finally learned how to ride a bike, practicing with her father “as if reclaiming a summer from a childhood” in a hilly neighborhood of Izmir, Turkey’s third biggest city situated on the Aegean coast, it completely transformed her life.
“Cycling changed everything for me,” said Gur, who is now 43 and rides a bike every day. “It’s a freedom like no other. I can go to places that I wouldn’t walk or drive to. I can stop, slow down, smell the things around me, talk to people, and be more mindful and healthy too.”
Despite all the benefits of cycling, there weren’t many women around Gur who were into it. “I wondered why there are so few women in Turkey on bikes,” she pondered. However, as she kept exploring her new lifestyle, she soon found out the answer: road bullying and harassment that many women are subjected to in the streets of Turkey made them feel too intimidated to cycle.
Urban centers of Turkey have been experiencing a tremendous growth in the last few decades thanks to the mass migration from rural areas and the booming population. In an asymmetrical megalopolis like Istanbul with over 14 million inhabitants, the infrastructural and social developments couldn’t always catch up with the rapid urbanization.
With crooked roads, pollution, mushrooming construction and — most importantly — lingering sexism, Istanbul and many other cities in Turkey and beyond aren’t always hospitable to women. Catcalling, harassment, intimidation and road rage are very common experiences that Turkish women experience in the streets every day.
When Gur was tired of being bullied on the road both as a cyclist and pedestrian, she turned to social media to mobilize her friends to cycle with her, in order to raise awareness about the issues women experience in the streets and traffic. With the interest of thousands of other women sharing similar experiences, the “Fancy Women on Bikes” movement was born with a simple message: “We should go wherever we want, dress however we like, be visible, yet not be disturbed.”
Starting in Gur’s liberal coastal hometown of Izmir, it quickly spread to other big cities like Istanbul and Ankara – as well as more conservative provincial towns, with the participation of women from all walks of life. They now run regular national cycling events.
“The rising social conservatism in Turkey in the recent years deteriorated women’s public status and freedom. With harassment and road bullying, women are denied their rights to the city,” said Banu Gokariksel, a feminist scholar of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Women’s visibility in urban spaces is key to reclaim that right to the city. Cycling is a particularly powerful way to do that – because it exposes a woman’s body in the traffic. It leaves them vulnerable in a way, but changes the way they interact with the city,” explained Gokariksel and added, “Regardless of their backgrounds, transportation is a big issue for all women around the world. Women being able to peacefully ride bikes isn’t a trivial thing. This movement can trigger bigger changes, if it can overcome the differences such as class, religion, ideology and ethnicity.”
“Fancy women on bikes” and many other women cyclists in the world echo Gokariksel’s statement with their actions. In many Muslim-majority countries in the world, women’s cycling is a taboo, as it’s considered a threat against a woman’s chastity. However, recently, this taboo met some resistance from different parts of the world. In neighboring Iran, when a fatwa against women riding bikes was issued, many women took over the streets on their bicycles and shared their photos on social media. And in Afghanistan, where women are banned from cycling, groups of women continue to ride bikes despite threats.
According to Angela Mwai, Leader of the Gender Equality Unit at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), cycling can be a part of a solution to bigger problems and a facilitator of gender equality in the urban centers of the developing countries.
“Women’s travel patterns tend to be different from those of men, with women combining multiple purposes and goals in the same trip,” Mwai said.
“Women also tend to make shorter but more frequent trips. Cycling can increase the overall mobility of women, enhancing their socioeconomic and political participation.”
Furthermore, cycling is a cost-efficient solution to many other issues associated with urban sprawl.
“When integrated with the mass transit system, cycling can increase the reach of public transport reducing the economic burden for transport, which tends to be particularly high for women,” Mwai added.
Gur believes not all women who participated in the national cycling event will continue to cycle on an everyday basis once the day is over. The thousands of nicely dressed women will return back home to likely take buses or drive the next day, she said. But it’s all about gaining visibility.
“You cannot bring patriarchy down overnight by simply cycling, of course,” added Gur.
“But it’s a start and it’s what we can do. [When we were on the bikes] thousands of people saw us. Now perhaps they will be less surprised when they see a woman riding a bicycle and treat us better.”
This article was originally published by The New York Times/Women in the World.