Controversy of female cyclists in Iran
Women in Iran are still not sure if cycling in public for their daily commute is legal or conforms to Sharia law. Now with more and more people wanting to join the environmental campaign ‘Tuesdays without Cars’, the question has once again taken center stage in media outlets and daily conversations.
Google ‘bicycle laws’ and the search results will be, without fail, about whether wearing helmets is mandatory in a particular country or not. Now type ‘cycling’ in Persian. Among others, Google will also suggest to you ‘female cycling’. You may be wondering why ‘female cycling’ would need to be a ‘thing’, to be a specific topic for discussion, and in fact you are not alone in wondering about that. Female cyclists have long been a subject of controversy in Iran, and once in a while, the topic will come up in discussion in media outlets and social networks.
Iran's legal code does not ban women from riding a bicycle, but the old, religious cultural texture does, in some parts of the country where the idea of women on a bicycle is so unusual that people may find it at conflict with their deep-seated religious values.
The controversy reared its ugly head a month ago in Marivan, the naturally beautiful county in Kurdistan province, western Iran, where a number of women were stopped by the police on charges of cycling. Reportedly, the police officers at the scene had deemed women’s cycling ‘Haram’ and ‘illegal’, but there is no law in the Iranian legal system that would ban women from taking part in this sport activity. And that is the very heart of the controversy. Religious figures in this small city with a population of about 100,000 have been very sensitive on this issue. Mamousta Mostafa Shirzadi, Marivan’s Friday Prayer Imam, reacted to the news on women’s cycling on the streets three days after the incident on July 29, saying “cycling in public is a sin for women and therefore, officials at the Sport and Youth Organization need to provide them with an appropriate indoor space [to do their cycling].”
Although women in Marivan will soon have their own exclusive space to ride bicycles and use other sports equipment provided for them at a ‘women-only’ park, that does not seem to have addressed the actual issue, which is the fact that women, as much as men, need to use bicycles, instead of cars or other means of transport, to commute. It is all well and good to have a special place to ride bicycles as a form of exercise, but the women who were stopped by the police had not come out to the streets with their bicycles in support of keeping fit and healthy – they were there as part of an environmental campaign, dubbed ‘Tuesdays without Cars’.
The idea of ‘Tuesdays without Cars’, or more generally ‘Clean Tuesdays’, which invites people to leave their cars at home on every Tuesday and instead commute on bicycles, was first introduced in November 2015 by environmental activities in Arak, a city where industrial pollution has for long harmed the activity and balance of citizens’ lives and brought many to the streets demanding that authorities take immediate action to reduce environmental pollution. The campaign soon gained popularity in other cities across the country to the point where less than a year after its tentative execution in a number of cities, all provinces joined in to bring the campaign on the verge of becoming a national event.
Mohammad Pouyesh, Director of Public Participation of Department of Environment, said the simple message of ‘Tuesdays without Cars’ is that each one of us should be the change in order to be worthy of living in a land of diverse plant and animal species. If the change needs to first happen within us and then spread to our surroundings and the planet on which we live, then every one of us, including all men and women, need to work together in order to make this world a better place.
Being one of the oldest civilizations in the world with its cultural roots going centuries upon centuries back to ancient traditions, Iran is home to unique and remarkably diverse ethnic and religious customs. In some parts of the country, such as Marivan, women are making far slower progress for being an active participant in the social sphere, but the progress is happening, slowly but surely, and their efforts are supported from the rest of the country where modernity has already found a comfortable place in people’s lives for a peaceful coexistence with tradition.
One such example of this civil support came last Tuesday, Aug. 23, from a number of young male and female cyclists in Tehran who were both promoting ‘Tuesdays without Cars’ and also the women’s rights to cycling. They had a piece of paper sticking to their bicycles with a picture of Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei, and beneath it, a quote attributed to him as saying ‘women’s cycling is both legal and conforms to Sharia law.’ There was no report of any confrontations between officers and the cyclists in Tehran, although a few number of media outlets voiced their objections over the move.
Interestingly, three days later on Aug. 26, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, posted a tweet on her official Twitter account in which she quoted Ayatollah Khamenei as saying ‘Women’s cycling is permissible on the condition that religious customs are observed,’ and finished the post with a ‘Clean Tuesdays’ hashtag. It appears that it is not the actual act of cycling that seems problematic for women, but rather the sensitivities are focused on the observance of the Islamic dress code and other religious customs. Therefore, as long as there is no violation of the dress code, women should be free to ride bicycles on the streets, without being worried that they are breaking a law in doing so. According to Article 2 of the Islamic Penal Code, “any conduct, including action or omission, for which punishment is provided by law, constitutes an offense.” And since there is no law against women’s cycling, the act by itself should not be considered an offense. In a similar vein, opinion No. 5152/7 of the Legal Department of Iran’s Judiciary dated 26.08.2000, maintains that “due to the legality of offences and punishments, since no punishment has been defined for wearing neckties, women’s cycling on main streets and men’s hairstyles, these acts are not legally an offence.”
On the other hand, a number of officials have voiced their support for female cyclists, including Mohammadreza Mahmoudi, then deputy head of civil affairs for Governor of Tehran, who said in 2012, “based on our investigations, there is no ban on the use of bicycles by women and one cannot confront them solely for cycling.”
Despite official and civil supports, the controversy of female cyclists is not settled yet. The ‘Houses of Bicycles’ which were set up by the Municipality of Tehran in the capital in 2009 still refuse to allow women to use the bicycles. A number of religious figures believe that female cyclists should be restricted to women-only spaces. In certain cities where tradition is still strongly observed, such as Yazd, women who decide to commute around the town on bicycles may run the risk of being stopped by officers. But the general consensus is that as long as women fully observe the dress code, there should be no objection to their cycling on the streets. ‘Tuesdays without Cars’ is already campaigned by men and women alike in many cities across the country and officials have promised to settle the remaining issues in other cities as well.