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In fuel-starved Yemen, women turn to bikes

With fuel running out and Saudi-led airstrikes resuming, a young activist led a group of women out on bicycles across the city
A Yemeni woman mounts a bicycle in front of the Saleh mosque in Yemen's capital (Bushra al-Fusail/MEE)

SANAA - With a Saudi-led bombing campaign leading to severe fuel shortages in Yemen’s capital, men in Sanaa have been forced to innovate. Some have run motorbikes on paint-thinner, others have hooked their car engines up to cooking-gas canisters to avoid the extortionate price of petrol.

But women in the capital, also trying to adapt to the turmoil, face an obstacle men do not: tradition.

Last week, when freelance photographer Bushra al-Fusail told her friends that she was considering riding a bike to work, they warned her against it.

Female bike riding is almost unheard of in Yemen - many conservative Yemenis believe it's immodest or reveals too much of a woman's body.

But after creating a Facebook group, 'Let's ride a bike' on Friday, Fusail convinced some of friends to join her on a women-only bike ride across the city, the first of its kind in Yemen.

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"It is totally unfair that men can move easily by using their bicycles when women are expected to stay home. No more fuel means that we can't go to work, that we are unable to provide and help our families. Join us!" Fusail posted on the group.

At noon on Saturday, 20 young women converged on al-Sabeen, a busy highway that runs past the presidential palace.

Most wore veils and didn’t themselves own bicycles but the few who did cycled for an hour and a half, looping around the mosque as Fusail snapped photos on her camera.

Pictures of the ride angered some Yemenis (Bushra al-Fusail/MEE)

The pictures of the ride, which spread like wildfire online, were met with dozens of furious comments.

“This can’t be real, these images were photoshopped,” commented one Yemeni man under a picture. “Those are not women, they are men dressed as women,” said another.

Fusail, though, 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."

‘An intellectual invasion’

Basem al-Qubati, a 35-year-old car mechanic who saw the women biking on Saturday, told MEE he was glad they were using the bicycles as a mean of transport, but that he worried men would harass them.

“One positive is that many have been distracted from the ongoing war," she said. "Instead of feeling depressed by the conflict they’re talking about women riding bicycles.”

When asked for his view on the bike ride, Yahya Afeef, a cleric from a nearby mosque, told Middle East Eye: "This is incompatible with Islam; Islam says that the women should be a symbol of virtue and this is not a kind of virtue."

At noon on Saturday 20 young women converged near Al-Sabeen, a busy highway that runs past the presidential palace (Bushra al-Fusail/MEE)

Afeef said that the families of the women should “advise them to stop this thing and live as other women do,” adding that the bike ride was a kind of "intellectual invasion" that came from the Western countries.

Samar Ahmed, a middle-aged housewife from the outskirts of Sanaa, seemed to agree with the Imam: "We are women and our religion and culture prevent us to bike… we should respect our religious principles and our society," she added, accusing the women of “looking for fame”.

A question of time

Marwa Qaed, a 23-year-old accounting student, said she would love to ride a bike if she could and that some of her friends had started learning in their back gardens.

"Ten years ago it was considered shameful for a women to drive a car… now you can see women driving everywhere," she said.

Qaed said she was not bothered by imams who criticised cycling, asserting that if imams were going to comment on the issue, they should offer solutions.

"I do not have a bicycle, but I will try to get one from my friend to teach me how to bike and I will join the women to do a revolution against the society," she said.

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