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Friday, May 1, 2009

London's Muslim Ladies' Cycling Club

RELIGION - Despite opposition from some of their community, increasing numbers of Muslim women in East London are riding bicycles, largely due to their cycling club which is growing in popularity.

The Muslim Women's Cycling Club regularly rides through Stepney, east London, starting from the Jagonari Centre in Whitechapel... and draw stares from non-Muslims unused to seeing women in full hijabs riding their bicycles.

It is Britain's only known Muslim women's cycling club and they host weekly lessons in a small park close to the East London mosque, teaching everything from basic to advanced cycling skills as well as bicycle maintenance and repair.

[My apologies for not being able to find a photo of a Muslim woman tuning up her bicycle with a set of tools, but please let me know if you find such a photo.]

"Most have never ridden," says Erika Severina, their cycling instructor. "Some make excuses, such as saying their clothes aren't suitable, but we've found bikes to accommodate that. Others don't want to ride outside. But now we've got them in parks and on back roads."

Women from other backgrounds and faiths also have taken part, but most are religiously observant Muslims and wear full Islamic dress. The group was formed in early June-July 2005. Some of the women have felt significant disapproval from their own community, but there's no rule in Islam that says women can't ride bicycles.

"Women should not be riding bikes. They are stimulating themselves. If they want to stimulate themselves they should get a man," says one Asian market trader on the pavement outside the Jagonari Women's Educational and Resource Centre in Whitechapel, where the cycling group is based.

Most of the women say that their husbands and sons are more bemused by their new hobby, rather than opposed to it - although the cycling group has one member who cycled in secret because she feared her father's disapproval.

Jagonari is Bengali for "Women Wake Up", but most of the local men appear to believe that women have woken up far too much. A common sentiment by Muslim men is that a woman in charge of a bicycle is a dangerous proposition. "They're bad enough in cars," says one man.

Nurjahan Khatun, the director of the Jagonari Centre, and founder of the cycling project, points out that "there's nothing in the Quran to say that women shouldn't ride bikes." Various Muslim websites argue both for and against women riding bicycles (let alone fixing them).

The Jagonari Centre is in the heart of Bengali East London. A few miles away, the London 2012 Olympic site is under construction at Stratford, but comparatively few local girls and women from the Bengali community take part in sport. A 2006 report for Sport England found that only 19 per cent of Indian and Bengali women took part in any sport, compared with 31 per cent for women nationwide.

Alema, 19, is the co-ordinator of the cycling group. "It's always the boys and their bikes," she says. "My parents never said 'You can't have a bike'. I never asked them. I once rode my cousin's bike in Sheffield and I loved it. I rode for three hours non-stop, I didn't want to get off."

Like many of the younger women in the group, Alema has a Westernized lifestyle and goes rock climbing and camping, and she also takes a more active interest in her religion than the older, more socially conservative, women who attend the Jagonari Centre. She wears the hijab scarf and the jilbab, a long black dress, and says that she became interested in Islam after September 11th. Even though she was raised Muslim, she says "I didn't know anything about Islam, but people started to say negative things about it, so I felt I had to find out the truth."

She is considering wearing a face veil, and is not put off by her parents' concern that it will attract negative attention. "This life is full of thorns, the next life is Paradise. So if you want to wear a veil, it's going to be a struggle - but this life is supposed to be about struggle."

Evidently Alema will do what she feels is right for herself and her version of Islam. Like other women in the group, however, she says that the best thing about riding a bike is the feeling of personal "freedom".

"You don't see many women out cycling, especially in the hijab," says Rajana, who is in her twenties and likes to ride the biggest, raciest bike in the group. "I'm a bit of a rebel," she says.

The other women learn on foldaway bikes with low crossbars to accommodate traditional garments. Various pins and clips are used to stop their long loose clothes getting caught in gears and spokes. Underneath many of the women are wearing fashionable shoes, or flipflops and have painted toenails. They look rather immaculate compared with the cycling instructor, who is wearing fingerless gloves, shorts and torn fishnet tights.

When the group started, the women rode large cumbersome Dutch bikes, turning tight circles in the tiny closed-off courtyard behind the centre. Now their confidence has grown and the women have already taken part in group rides in Hyde Park and past the Houses of Parliament.

"When I started the project it was because I had really wanted to learn to ride when I went to university at Cambridge, but I didn't have the nerve," Khatun says. "I started the cycling group and expected young girls to come along, yet what's really surprised me was how many older women wanted to take part as well."

With low levels of English, older Bengali women have traditionally been one of the hardest ethnic groups to reach. But these are the women who attend the Jagonari Centre to talk to their friends and take part in activities.

Naz is one such lady, whose commitment to cycling has been dedicated, despite slow progress. She struggles with her knees and finds it hard to work the pedals.

"She is having problems with the circling," says one. "It's the turning," the other agrees. [Mechanical note, maybe the bicycle's headset needs a tune up and new ball bearings.]

"I'm just frightened I will veer off and hit someone," Naz tells the instructor.

"My son has told me to get some stabilisers," Naz says, who came to England from Pakistan as a young woman, and her husband now works in the United States while she lives in East London with her grown-up son, who is an avid cyclist. "He loved riding his bike when he was a little boy. It would not have occurred to me to have a bike. But now he is supporting his old mum."


  1. Hi, I am interested to join these women but you haven't given any information about future rides.

  2. I see that you have used my article from The Times virtually word for word, without actually mentioning it. I'm happy to get the story out there, but a name check would be polite. Thanks. Karen Bartlett



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