January 12, 2021
Mina Akbari, a former journalist focusing on cinema and a documentary filmmaker, has given her account of the #riding_bicycles campaign, which encourages Iranians to push back against discrimination against women riding bikes.
Akbari posted a video on the campaign’s website on January 9, outlining her personal experience of cycling in Tehran and the restrictions that have been placed on women who cycle over the last four decades.
She charts the trajectory of politicians’ stances on the right to cycle over her lifetime, recalling Faezeh Hashemi’s appeals for a more liberal attitude toward cycling during the fifth term of Iran’s parliament (1996-2000) when Hashemi was a parliamentarian, as well as Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s continued ban on women’s cycling during his tenure as mayor of Tehran (2005-2017).
In the video, Mina Akbari says she first started cycling as a young girl of seven, when her father first bought her a bicycle for her birthday. Akbari says schools did not allow female students to ride bicycles to school.
“It took years for Ms. Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani to run in the elections with her campaign for women’s cycling. Imagine: we had to vote for a politician in order to ride a bike — that was the ceiling of our demands from an MP, that we could ride bicycles.”
Despite this, Akbari says, female cyclists were still badly treated during that period, just as they had always been and continue to be.
Then Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf became the mayor of Tehran, and residents of Tehran who wanted to cycle had to be prepared to show their national identity card to authorities. “I considered this an insult,” Akbari says, adding that she was essentially banned from riding a bicycle again.
When Pirouz Hanachi became mayor of Tehran in November 2018, he launched the “Fumeless” bike-sharing initiative in the capital. In 2020, he continued to promote cycling with a “Tuesdays without cars” campaign. Akbari says when her friend told her about the initiative back in 2018, she felt encouraged to cycle again after so many years of being threatened for doing so.
Akbari’s father again bought her a bicycle for her birthday — this time for her fortieth. Four years on, she says her life has been transformed and she now travels to work by bike, as well as cycles to cafes and bookshops and other leisure activities. “I re-discovered Tehran by bicycle and I suggest you once again see Tehran by bike,” she tells people.
As part of the #riding_bicycles initiative, people share their experiences and the routes they take around the city. The campaign to promote the culture of cycling also promotes guidelines for people to follow when cycling in Tehran and lists the benefits of getting on a bike for both leisure and transport.
Legally, the Islamic Republic does not prohibit women from riding bicycles. But in several provinces of Iran, extremists and some police forces continue to clash with female cyclists, expressing their opposition to the practice, often backing up their objections with statements from various religious scholars who rail against the activity.
On October 19, 2020, a video of a woman riding a bicycle without a hijab in the main square of the city of Najafabad in Isfahan province was published on social media, prompting her arrest.