Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

‘Girl on the bike’ in Iraq pedals for women’s rights

Young artist Marina Jaber began riding in Baghdad after questioning why women on cycles were frowned upon by Iraqi society.
Marina Jaber, centre, known to many as 'the girl on the bike', is inspiring Iraqi women to exercise their freedoms. Ahmad Mousa / AFP
Marina Jaber, centre, known to many as 'the girl on the bike', is inspiring Iraqi women to exercise their freedoms. Ahmad Mousa / AFP

Baghdad // Marina Jaber has become better known as “the girl on the bike” after inspiring other Iraqi women to exercise their rights, one turn of the pedal at a time.

The young artist cuts an unusual figure as she rides her red bicycle through Baghdad, her hair swaying in the wind. What she started as an art project soon became a social media meme and then a movement.

Women now gather regularly to cycle in Baghdad and break new ground in Iraq’s conservative society.

Or is it old ground?

“My mother and my grandmother used to ride bicycles. It used to be normal,” Ms Jaber said.

She said felt so proud when she rode a cycle during a visit to London last year, then asked herself why.

“It’s only a bike. It’s a simple thing. It should be normal,” the 25-year-old said.

“Does society just not allow us to do certain things or does it start not accepting those certain things because we stopped doing them? That was an important question that had been on my mind for a long time.”

To find the answer, Ms Jaber started cycling in her neighbourhood and made that a project for a contemporary arts institute called Tarkib – an Arabic word which can mean installation and assemblage.

A picture she posted of herself cycling alongside an old man on his bicycle as he stared at her in reproving disbelief made the rounds on Iraqi social media last year.

“With that old man, I found my answer. For more than five minutes, I was riding next to him and he kept looking at me. He didn’t seem to like it,” Ms Jaber said.

“Then he stopped looking and went about his business. All the people in the area got used to it, they stopped looking at me ... I understood then that I am society. If I want something, I should start doing it.”

Ms Jaber instantly became an inspiration for girls and women across the country who yearned to live the way they chose and not bow to more or less recent social, tribal or religious restrictions.

“I received a lot of messages, mostly from young girls. Maybe they needed somebody to stand up for their rights,” she said.

Ms Jaber has become part a long history of women using cycling as a symbol of emancipation.

In England, suffragette Alice Hawkins once famously rode down the streets of Leicester to promote women’s rights – scandalously wearing pantaloons.

More than a century later, the symbol is still potent in the Middle East, as exemplified in the 2012 Saudi film Wadjda about an 11-year-old girl from Riyadh who defies society and her mother by buying the green bike of her dreams with the prize money from a Quranic recitation contest.

Ms Jaber’s story also echoes that of Bushra Al Fusail, a photographer from Yemen who started her country’s first female cycling group in 2015 to affirm women’s rights and protest against the war.

In Iraq, women from across the country started posting pictures of themselves on cycles and dozens have joined group rides in the streets of Baghdad, which are closed off to traffic by police who escort the cyclists.

“It’s not illegal for a woman to cycle in Iraq but because of the war we Iraqis stopped doing a lot of things we used to do ... we are too busy with death,” Ms Jaber said.

Men have started joining the group rides as well.

“It’s liberating for a man too. Everyone looks so happy, the city even looks more beautiful like this. It feels like the normal life we want,” said Mustafa Ahmed, a young army officer.

“There were some negative reactions at first but the comment I hear the most now is ‘Aah, this is the Baghdad we know’,” said Ms Jaber.

“Now I want to support girls to stop being scared. We can change reality.”

* Agence France Presse

Updated: February 10, 2017 04:00 AM