It is not merely about riding bicycles but about breaking taboos and pushing for women’s rights and freedom in the conservative Iraqi society. Marina Jaber’s bold initiative “I am the society” has inspired dozens of Iraqi girls to ride bicycles in the streets of Baghdad, defying traditions and causing controversy.
Jaber, a 25-year-old artist, said she had the idea of riding a bicycle in public during a visit to Europe. “I felt really sad then because Baghdad’s girls are deprived of enjoying such activity,” she said. “This is how I got the idea of the initiative, which I wanted to be a starter for every girl who aspires to achieve her dreams despite the harshness and severity of the society.
“It is just a beginning to break the status quo in the Iraqi society, which became even more closed and conservative after 2003.”
Jaber started her project in areas considered less conservative to gather courage to cycle in more traditional areas. She posted pictures online under the Arabic hashtag “I am the society”.
“When I moved to conservative, popular neighbourhoods, including Al-Meedan, Shawaka and Shorja, I had to put up with insults and hostility,” she said. “I was pushed and cursed. They even tried to obstruct me but I was determined to continue and accept the challenge.
“I thought: ‘How do I want girls to rebel against their society and take their simple rights if I don’t dare to ride my bicycle?’”
Jaber’s initiative, launched in early December, was applauded by poet and activist Aya Mansour, who shared the same objective. “Everybody is concerned in making a change. It is a matter that concerns men as well as women,” Mansour said.
“Change should come from within the person and this is what we should be fighting for, especially that Iraqi women have always been pioneers in acquiring their rights notably in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s of the last century.”
Mansour lashed out at male intellectuals and academics who “claim to be civilised” by preaching personal freedoms and rights. “In fact, they were the harshest and most hostile against us. Their comments on social media platforms evoked hatred and puritanism that is hard to believe could come out from so-called intellectuals,” she said.
She contended that with “repetition and determination the society will get used to accepting that women practise their life the same way as their counterparts in other countries”.
TV anchor Vivian Ghanem, a Christian, described Jaber’s initiative as “encouraging” as well as “courageous”.
“It will contribute to raising awareness and introducing positive change. The initiative struck a very sensitive chord in the society but it should continue until tangible results are achieved and until the society gets used to matters that are supposed to be natural and a fundamental right for any person around the world, and that is personal freedom,” Ghanem said.
Riding a bicycle is not the end objective but a means to make a statement, she said. “It is a drop in a sea of matters that relate to personal freedoms and the right for free speech and free action, which the society is trying to suppress with the support of the regime. These freedoms can only be safeguarded and sustained through laws that protect the individual from the dominance of the society,” Ghanem added.
Iraqi women were pioneers in the Arab region in gaining their rights, notably since the enactment of the personal status law in the 1950s that enabled them to practise key professions, including medicine, engineering and law and enrol in the armed forces. Iraq’s Naziha al- Dulaimi, who served as minister of Municipalities in the late 1950s, was the first Arab woman minister.
While it received large support from Iraqi youth, Jaber’s initiative was lambasted in intellectual circles. A journalist, who asked to be identified as “Sami”, described the move as “unethical” for women and an affront to the conservative Iraqi society.
“It is incorrect to impose the will of a bunch of girls on the whole society. This initiative could usher in a larger use of bicycles which will inevitably lead to more harassment and provocation and consequently to angry reactions resulting in additional social problems, which we can do without,” Sami said.
He argued that supporters of the initiative “were not much different in their practices” from religious parties that control Iraq. “They cut off Abu Nawas, which is a vital road in Baghdad, to organise their ride, notwithstanding the hassle they caused to others.”
Despite the harsh criticism by conservative men and women and hard-line religious leaders, Jaber said she is determined to uphold her initiative, which she illustrated in an art installation made from a dismantled bicycle.
“I wanted to show the public that a bicycle is a very simple tool made of metal and two wheels,” she said. “So, why is it rejected and the girls who ride it are slammed as immoral?”
The article was first published in the Arab Weekly
Oumayma Omar, based in Baghdad, is a contributor to the Culture and Society sections of The Arab Weekly.
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