Taking It To The Street
A Feminist Cycling Manifesto
By Salammbô K. Beels
Once, a boyfriend recalled our first encounter at the hairdresser where he was a regular. After my haircut, I said my goodbyes and climbed onto my black, old-school bicycle as he stood on the sidewalk and watched me pedal away. Afterwards, he admitted that at that very moment, he had felt the urge to own a bicycle to be able to follow me. His confession made me remember the moment from my perspective. As I was dancing on the pedals to overcome the hill at the bottom where the barbershop was located, and I could feel his gaze on my back (or at least I knew that he was looking at me), I was looking ahead, proud, powerful and free. It was a paradoxical and playful game of wanting to get closer to someone while remaining just out of reach, making this person long for us even more.
Reminisced in this poetic and romantic version, this brief scene between a man and a woman could also have materialised in a much different way by changing only two elements of the recalled configuration; take away the emerging bond between the two protagonists, and, second, remove daylight. What you then have is a scene at night: a man on a sidewalk intently looking at a woman riding away on her bicycle. The only obstacle between their actual encounter is that the former is standing on his feet while the latter is moving on a two-wheel machine. Being in motion restrains, or rather shapes her capacity to interact with the world around her. Therefore she retains the capacity to either shield herself from it or choose to engage with it. Her being in movement is, in a redundant way, illustrative and constitutive of her freedom to be. Therefore, owning and riding a bicycle is a tool for a specific type of female empowerment.
While the beautiful and unparalleled 2012 movie Wadjda, directed by Haifa Al Mansour, showed the world how a bike could change a young Saudi girl’s life, few have so far reflected on how bikes can and do, change women's lives in the western world. Riding a bike is much more commonplace there than it is in Saudi Arabia. However, when it comes to female biking, it is worth noting the generational and gender gap; compared to the percentage of bike-riding men and boys, there is a steep drop in the number of female bike riders as they transition from children to teens to adults.
This is easily explained by the conjunction of the gendered socialisation imposed on women and men throughout their existence, and the way biking is conceived in our societies. Since the advent of the car, biking is seen as either a demanding sport or as a dynamic hobby. It is rarely considered as a means of transportation—although this has recently changed thanks to much needed public policies fostering bike-friendly urban planning. It also requires adequate clothing; biking with a skirt or a dress, not to mention high heels, is possible but not always convenient on traditional bike frames, which explains the historical emergence of lady frames or step-through frames.
Thus, it is easy to see how biking reinforces gender stereotypes, namely some forms of performed femininity and masculinity. The former constituting an insidious restriction of women’s movements, and therefore a form of oppression. Displaying traditional femininity should not be shamed as awareness does not come with a certain style; yet, it is indeed a shame that girls and women— as well as men—are not taught to bike in any kind of outfits. Formal or traditional professional attire is indeed not always compatible with biking, especially in inclement weather or hilly geographies. All this explains my female friends' frequent complaints on the incompatibility of biking with their lifestyle. Interestingly enough, male friends wearing professional attire have also made those complaints.
Outfits aside, the most common reason women cite against biking is fear of the street environment due to the lack of material protection and priority they are granted through the law. The fear associated with biking that many of my female friends struggle with can once again be traced back to gender socialisation and its impact on the way individuals engage with collective space. It has been shown that young boys receive more support to explore their surroundings in a dynamic and body-oriented way compared to young girls. Much of the gender divide in sports activities follow the divide which exists between private and inside space for “girls’ sports”, and public and outside space for “boys’ sports” and reinforces the private-public space dichotomy upon which our patriarchal societies are built.
Apprehension on the road can be likened to a feeling of unease in underground parking lots at night: it is an acquired fear resulting from social injunctions regarding how one can or cannot occupy certain spaces. The analogy suggested here is not meaningless. With urban spaces organised and planned, by men with men in mind, women have to engage in various strategies to use those spaces where their identities and needs are neglected, if not threatened. Women tend to use public transportation more than men, and are therefore subject to unwanted, solicitations or harassment coming from the public spaces that sidewalks and bus/tram platforms or interiors constitute. This issue is compounded by the lack of surrounding resources if something happens.
This is where bikes become a powerful resource for women to enable them to move around and through public spaces. Bikes afford women speed, freedom of movement, and the opportunity to take back the male gaze as female cyclists can look around unashamed or unafraid, Consequently, urban spaces are being reclaimed as bikes enable female riders access to locations that are otherwise too far to walk to, not well connected by public transportation, or too costly to traverse by cab.
Of course, as beautiful and empowering as bikes can be, they are only a partial solution to the problems women encountered in cities. Riding a bike does not stop street harassment altogether; it can even sometimes be a pretext for it. In addition to the gender bias it encompasses, the western world bike culture tends to be quite elitist and lacks diversity which can make it intimidating to enter. Plus, new or used bikes can be expensive to purchase and maintain, and kids growing up in poor households will be less likely to learn how to bike compared to more privileged kids. Biking also only makes sense in relatively limited geographical areas. Residents in distant suburbs who need to commute to the centre of the city for work, school or entertainment purposes are much less prone to use them to that effect. As American blogger Elly Blue states, [b]arriers to bicycling include the cost of bicycle purchase when all one’s transportation dollars are tied up in a car, cultural barriers such as perception and police profiling, and lack of access to safe infrastructure in neighborhoods with low housing costs. Thus, while women in general tend to bike much less than men, BIPOC (Black, Indigineous, People of Color) women, are even further marginalised by the issues mentioned. Their needs and voices should be included in this conversation.
So where does all of this leave us? The answer lies in the necessity to take a genuine political stance on the matter. Hence the manifesto. While bikes are not the only solution, they are a part of it. Public authorities need to realise that women’s lives can be improved by implementing policies which facilitate transportation and movement across public spaces. Along these lines, urban planning, public transportation-oriented, and biking community organisations should pay more attention to those issues and promote biking in a gender-sensitive way. Last but not least, we, female bikers need to unite and spread the word of riding freedom among our peers, be they cyclists or non-cyclists, and in particular female ones. Because, at the end of the day, the more people bike, the freer we are, silently sliding and smiling our lives away together.
For further information on this topic, check out Dames on Frames, a 2010 Feminist Bike Zine in four volumes, distributed by Microcosm Publishing.
This piece was originally published in September 2014 in the 'Night' issue of OURS Magazine and has been edited and condensed by the author for Bloomer Magazine.