In Gaza, Bicycles Are a Battleground for Women Who Dare to Ride
By DIAA HADID and MAJD AL WAHEIDIFEB. 22, 2016
Amna Suleiman and her friend Asala taking a break from cycling in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday.
They are among the first women in years to pedal publicly in Gaza,
where an unwritten rule bars women past puberty from cycling.
Wissam Nassar for The New York Times
SALAHUDDIN ROAD, Gaza Strip — The four women pedaling bicycles with jammed gears and wobbly chains up Salahuddin Road, Gaza
’s bumpy main highway, on a recent morning caused quite a stir.
driver of a three-wheeled tuk-tuk slowed down and a teenager on a
horse-drawn cart sped up to match the women’s pace. A jeep filled with Hamas
beeped and cheered as it passed, and a pack of men on motorbikes left a
wake of catcalls. The sight of women on two wheels was so unusual that
Alaa, 11, who was grazing sheep on the grassy median, assumed they were
foreigners and shouted out his limited English vocabulary: “Hello! One,
The women ignored the hubbub as they pedaled from Jabalia, a crammed cinder-block town in Gaza’s north, to the Hamas
before the heavily restricted border crossing into Israel. They dumped
their bikes in a nearby olive grove and sat down for a picnic of cheese
Ms. Suleiman, center, and other women with their bikes in Gaza on Friday.
Suleiman, 33, the little cycling club’s leader, offered some wisdom to
the other riders, a decade her junior. “Listen, girls, there’s nothing
left in my orchard except firewood,” Ms. Suleiman said, using a Palestinian
for being a spinster. “But you are young. I want you, when you get
married, to make riding your bikes a condition of marriage.”
Wissam Nassar for The New York Times
younger women erupted in laughter at the suggestion. “He’ll give me a
beating!” exclaimed Asala, 21, who spoke on the condition her last name
not be used.
women, who began riding together in December, are the first in years to
pedal publicly in Gaza, where the nearly decade-long rule of the
Islamist Hamas movement has been accompanied by various initiatives to
restrict the modest efforts of women hoping to practice sports.
Hamas barred women from running in a Gaza marathon
2013, leading to its cancellation, and once tried to prohibit women
from riding behind men on motorbikes. Female athletes practice in closed
stadiums. Gyms are either single sex or have strict hourly divisions by
In 2010, a Gaza journalist, Asmaa al-Ghoul, was spit at and threatened when she and three friends who were foreigners biked about 15 miles
from Gaza’s southern tip to Gaza City in protest of the unwritten rule barring women past puberty from cycling.
Muheisin, assistant undersecretary in Gaza’s youth and sports ministry
office, said that women riding in public represented a “violation” of
Gaza values, but that he would not try to stop them unless religious
leaders addressed the matter with a fatwa.
at the idea of women bicycling in public because men might
inappropriately leer at their legs moving up and down or ogle their
bottoms. Female cyclists are a fairly unusual sight throughout the Arab
world, though women participate in group rides in Cairo and Amman, and
in Beirut, women pedal rented bikes on the Corniche, the pedestrian
strip along the Mediterranean.
Abu Saif, a Gaza-based writer, said that until the mid-1980s, “it used
to be normal” to see women riding bikes in Gaza. “They did it for
pleasure and fun, by the sea,” he said.
That was before Ms. Suleiman moved to Gaza, as a teenager in the 1990s, but she had cycled as a child in Damascus, Syria.
Her riding revival began with a bet: She and two girlfriends created a competition to see who could lose the most weight in two weeks. Ms. Suleiman, who also swims and plays the keyboard, shed 11 pounds by cutting out bread, rice and pasta, and collected $75.
“It was like ‘The Biggest Loser,’ but the Amna version,” she said.
decided to buy a bicycle, figuring it would help her keep losing
weight. And, she said, “I wanted to remind myself of my childhood, which
was without problems,” recalling that she would sneak off with her
neighbor’s bicycle for forays around their Damascus enclave.
first she rode in Gaza only around her own neighborhood at dawn, when
few would see her. She encouraged her friend Sara Salibi, 24, whose
teenage brother taught her how to ride, also at dawn. The women shared a
similar defiance against Gaza’s limited expectations of women, although
they are otherwise quite different.
Salibi smokes, though only in private; reads Milan Kundera, the Czech
author; and hums tunes from Jimmy Fallon’s television show. “I like to
dance, but I don’t know how to dance,” she said. “I want to learn how to
For the daring adventure up Salahuddin Road on Friday,
Ms. Salibi wore a 1970s-style blue-and-black track suit, her hair
poking out from a wool hat she had halfheartedly pushed on her head. In
contrast, Ms. Suleiman, who teaches the Quran to children and volunteers
in an orphanage, dressed modestly in a red Islamic head scarf, long red
coat, wide black pants and spotted red socks.
“Riding a bike makes you feel like you are flying,” Ms. Suleiman said. Ms. Salibi echoed that sentiment, saying, “I feel free.”
They were accompanied on Friday by Ms. Salibi’s 21-year-old sister, Nour, and her friend Asala, whose brown head scarf matched her Converse sneakers.
group cycled past a building whose facade included gaping holes covered
with plastic, still unrepaired from the 2014 war between Gaza militants
and Israel. The women wobbled past empty lots piled with rubble that
indicated where a bombed building once stood.
Nearby, a fighter in the militant group Islamic Jihad who was waiting for a friend described the women as “detestable and ugly.”
role of our women is to obey their husbands and prepare food for them
inside the house, not to imitate men and ride bikes in the streets,”
said the man, 33, who refused to give his name but echoed the view of
many Gaza men interviewed, and of multiple comments on social networks,
after news of the cycling group reached the Palestinian news media.
distinct minority approved, including Abdul Salam Hussein, 53, who was
sitting near a cement factory. “So what if a woman rides a bike?” he
exclaimed. “People have reached the moon already!”
Hamad, 51, a mother of nine, watched the women in Gaza from her vantage
point on the back of a horse-drawn cart clopping down the road.
Pointing at one of her young daughters, Ms. Hamad said, proudly: “She
rides a bike, too. She takes it from her brother.”
Ms. Hamad had told her daughter she could not keep riding as she grew,
lest it invite gossip and scorn. Now the girl wore a wide grin.
“When she saw them,” Ms. Hamad said, “she said, ‘Mama: Look, there are women who are riding bikes!