A world champion female cyclist has slammed the move to allow women to ride bikes in Saudi Arabia, calling it gesture politics and saying that it gives women no more independence than they had before.
Helen Russell, from Bromsgrove, has written a column for Metro, saying that telling women to avoid riding in areas where there are young men, so as not to be harassed, means that "women’s lives have to be restricted to avoid men’s unacceptable behaviour."
An official from Saudi Arabia’s religious police quoted in the newspaper Al-Yawm said that women would be able to ride bicycles or motorbikes in recreational areas, with the proviso that they are accompanied by a male relative and also wear the abaya, the Islamic garment that covers the body from head to toe.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving, and they will only be permitted to use two-wheelers “for entertainment” and not for transportation.
They have also been told to avoid locations where groups of young men gather “to avoid harassment.''
Helen says that for many women around the world, especially in Saudi where women are not allowed to drive, cycling represents more than a way to get about, or improve fitness.
She writes: "The bicycle has long been a symbol of women’s freedom and liberation. The advent of the bicycle had a profound affect on women’s position in society, giving them greater freedom to travel and become self-reliant. The bike was a tool of the suffragettes, who were able to travel and promote the right to vote around the country.
"Cycling still gives women the possibility of being independent and autonomous and gives women a way of transcending personal and social barriers."
She also points out the situation in Iran, where cycling is also frowned upon for half the population.
She writes: "During the Olympics Ayatollah Elm Alhuda, Friday prayer Imam in the holy city of Mashad, argued: ‘It is not a sin for a woman to sit on a bicycle saddle, provided she does so indoors or in her backyard.
‘But if she cycles in public her movements and posture will lead to corruption and prostitution.’"
And, she concludes, the measure is not really about women at all.
"The continued restrictions show that Saudi Arabia is not really serious about women’s equality. As with its inclusion of two women in the Saudi 2012 Olympic team, this change in the law is, in my opinion, merely a gesture to defend its position of trade partner and ally to the West."
After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.