On the 10th of September, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a “fatwa” (a religious decree which is law) forbidding women to ride bikes in public places for fear that they would attract “the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption”. Bicycles, he continued, “contravenes women’s chastity, and it must be abandoned”. His fatwa followed a declaration one week earlier in which he defined the “role and mission” of Iranian women as “motherhood and housekeeping”. In the process, once again, the regime in Tehran is finding new ways of turning its citizens into criminals.
The need to issue such a fatwa rose since women riding bike in public was considered a “sin” but there isn’t a law in the Iranian penal code regarding women on bikes. The issue of women on bicycles has been buzzing in Iran since around May when authorities began placing signs in parks which stated that “bicycle riding for women is prohibited in this place, women are set to ride at the women’s park”. Nobody really took notice until, July 26th, when security agents detained a group of women who had organized a cycling event, the Lake Bike Riders, to increase awareness to the ravages on the environment and to encourage citizens to forego the use of cars at least one day a week (Carless Tuesday). The women cyclists were taken to the police station to sign a “pledge” to never ride bicycles in public before they were released.
The absurdity of the fatwa and its oppressing effect on women, their health and the environment began attracting a lot of attention in Iran and the world but some (very) brave Iranian women have decided to take their protest to the next level. In cooperation with My Stealthy Freedom, a community on Facebook for women who try to enjoy their “stealthy freedom” by sharing pictures of themselves defying the oppressive regime by not wearing hijabs, Iranian women began uploading pictures and videos of themselves biking despite the ban – #IranianWomenLoveCycling. Masih Alinejad, the Iranian journalist and administrator of My Stealthy Freedom is sure that women who are willing to share their moments of stealthy freedom are the key for change in Iran: “Women in Iran want to be active in society but for the clerics that’s the big threat because in their (the regime’s) eyes, women should not be seen nor heard, stuck in the kitchen…women are the main agents of change”.
It’s hard for some people to understand just how brave these women who are sharing their pictures and videos on bikes really are. Men and women are sent to jail and even executed for “insulting the Supreme Leader” and protesting Khamenei’s fatwa is a huge risk. But that’s exactly the point: these women are willing to risk their freedom and their lives to be a part of the change even if it means doing something which might seem insignificant to some such as not wearing a hijab or riding a bike. Listening to these women is inspiring: “We immediately rented 2 bicycles to say we’re not giving up cycling…It’s our absolute right and we’re not going to give up”, “am I a criminal because I love life and I love cycling?”, “on that day (when the ban will be lifted), I will be proud that I did resist the oppression”, “we will do what we think and feel is right”. Listen to this woman expressing her feelings while riding with her mother.
It’s obvious that Khamenei will never overturn his fatwa since he cares less for the freedoms of women than for the support of the hardline men who make up his regime. Hassan Rouhani hasn’t voiced his opinion on this issue but judging from the past, he is powerless to fight the regime on social issues. In the past, he has called on the authorities to relax the implementation of hijab laws, to allow women to support the Iranian teams in sports stadiums etc…but he knows what everyone knows in Tehran: going against the Supreme Leader on any issue is the quickest way to disappear physically or politically. It makes no difference that he encouraged Iranian women to enjoy health lifestyles nor that he has expressed support for solutions to save the environment because as Barbara Slavin put it so simply “probably he is the right man at the right time, and the best we can hope for…But he’s a cautious bureaucrat. He knows exactly how far he can go without riling up the supreme leader and other hardline elements of the country”. Or as one Iranian politician who preferred to remain unnamed said “the leader (Khamenei) is mainly interested in remaining in power…anyone who endangers that is either thrown in jail or gets shot”.
But Rouhani will have to step out of his comfort zone if he intends to drum up votes in the upcoming presidential elections: it was the votes of women, liberals and secular Iranians which brought him to power – without their support, he is bound to lose. His loss will be the hardliners’ gain and the oppression of the civil rights and the personal and social freedoms of the Iranian people is bound to grow which will leave his disillusioned voters with a simple choice: bow down to the regime or rise up against it. The only hope is that if enough Iranian women decide to take the issue of their oppression to the streets, the regime will find itself in a no-win situation: accept the gradual liberation of women’s rights or crack down on the protesting women and face a huge backlash by Iranian women and their male supporters who would rather live a “normal” life than a “revolutionary” one.