Cars, taxies and buses are the only ways for women to get around in Yemen. Unlike men, women in Yemen can’t ride a motorcycle or a bicycle. When the Saudi-led coalition aggression started in Yemen, the shortages of oil and gas made it difficult for women to get to work. They became more dependent on men.
Ahlam, a young woman, doesn’t have a father or brothers. She is the sole source of income for her family. Habits and traditions mean nothing to her, her only concern is how to go to her job and survive. With her options limited, she decided to go to work by bicycle. She didn’t care about all the insulting words she heard on the way. By chance, Bushra Al-Fusail, a photographer and women’s right activist, saw her and heard the words she was exposed to, so she decided to take photos of girls riding bicycles.
“The need forced me to ride a bicycle under the sun’s heat. It is not to show off or to say it is my right, so please stop misjudging us,” Ahlam said.
On May 17th, a group of young veiled women broke social barriers and rode bicycles as a means of transportation. Al-Fusail’s message was not only for transportation but also to send a message that Yemen is a home for all men and women, so they have to have equal rights.
Al-Fusail said that twenty years ago women started to drive cars and many men were angered. It is a similar situation now. “It is only a matter of time and bicycles for a woman will be normal.”
Few men supported the idea. Shawqi al-Qadhi, a rights activist, said, “I remember when small buses appeared in Yemen. It was shame for women to ride them because the buses were for men. With time, the case has changed completely and buses are a way of transportation for everyone, meaning that community habits can be changed depending on several factors, including economic.”
Eman M. Abubakr, a poet, said that she was shocked when she read comments on the photos of the women riding bicycles, as if they were doing obscene acts. “Women for them are bodies and no more. Stop thinking of women like this. Women are humans with hearts and souls.”
Hussein al-Waday, a writer, said that he gives her daughters freedom because he doesn’t fear freedom but the lack of freedom. Al-Waday believes that mistakes and experiences are important to teach his daughters, and he refused the culture that considers experiences as rebellion and mistakes as a crime. “Does society allow my daughters to commit a mistake and choose their fate or just judge them?”
Riding bicycles is not the only attempt to break habits. Safa, Ghadeer, Abeer, Amani and Mariam decided to produce a film called Between Customs and Religion. The film discusses four jobs that women in Yemen can never practice because of traditions and the culture of shame, not because of religion. The four jobs are a barber, butcher, bus driver, and traffic policewoman. “We brought the community something out of the ordinary to see the reality and know how many unjust judgments they have made against working women,” said Safa.
Shame has destroyed a lot of women’s dreams and has turned innocent actions of women into forbidden acts in Yemen’s male-dominated society.
Safa and her friends are tired of the word ‘shame’ that they hear when they practice some of their rights. It is shame to eat in a certain way because women are in a hurry; it is shame to sit on sidewalks because women are a bit tired and men use insulting words against them, which isn’t considered shameful. The disaster is that society replaces the word ‘shame’ with ‘forbidden’ and turns customs and traditions into religion.
At a time when female children were considered property and sometimes buried alive for their crimes, Islam called for the honoring of women and the protection of their rights. Islam protected women’s rights to education, employment, inheritance and many other aspects of society.
“This can’t be real, these images were photo-shopped,” commented one Yemeni man under a picture. “Those are not women, they are men dressed as women,” said another.
Sharing her thoughts with Middle East Eye too, Fusail, said that many of the Yemenis who saw the bike ride on the day reacted positively.
“I thought that people would come and laugh at us or try to prevent us from cycling, but this did not happen at all, instead there were some people who tried to encourage us, and this motivated us to continue.”
“Biking was our way of showing that nothing can stop us – not bombing not cultural taboos, this is our right; we have a right to live and the right to movement.”