It’s not all about lycra: how a group of Muslim women is creating positive role models to encourage other sisters to get cycling.
You may have noticed a group of female cyclists, some of them wearing hijabs, riding around Victoria Park. This is the Cycle Sisters, a group of Muslim women with a newfound passion.
Cycle Sisters was set up in 2016 to inspire and enable Muslim women to get into cycling. The aim of the organisation is to break cultural barriers and create positive role models that is inclusive and accessible for other Muslim women and women of colour.
Sabeha Miah, who grew up and worked in Tower Hamlets, set up the Tower Hamlets group in 2020 and now works as its project manager.
Hubbub partnered with Cycle Sisters to set up the Tower Hamlets project. The group was funded by Hubbub, an environmental charity that promotes community-led climate positive action.
Hubbub based its application for funding on a report published in 2019 by Sustrans, a charity that promotes walking and cycling in the UK. It highlighted gender and racial inequalities in cycling in Tower Hamlets. According to the report, 6% of women in the borough cycle at least once a week, compared to 16% of men. Furthermore, only 7% of residents from ethnic minority groups cycle at least once a week, compared to 16% of white people.
The funding from Hubbub paid for a project manager, the bikes, and the ride leaders’ training, done through British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling.
Miah talks passionately about Cycle Sisters’ aim: ‘It really is about tackling inequalities in cycling and access to cycling, but also demonstrating that cycling is for everyone. You don’t have to be clad in lycra head to toe, you can cycle perfectly well wearing an abaya or hijab.’
‘You would come across women who think cycling is not for them, I was one of them. We are changing that narrative and sharing that message with everybody,’ Miah states.
‘There is a real untapped need in the community around Muslim women and women of colour wanting to cycle but don’t really know how to navigate around how to do it,’ she adds.
Most of the women join through word of mouth, and this is how Shankaron Mohammed, who lives near Roman Road, got in touch with the group in the first half of 2021, when she had never cycled before.
As women need to be able to ride independently to join the weekly rides, Miah pointed her towards Bikeworks, which runs free cycling sessions through Tower Hamlets council.
‘I didn’t cycle before because I didn’t see any sister with a hijab cycling on the road. But when I saw them cycling as a group, they gave me the confidence that I can wear whatever I want and I can ride at the same time,’ Mohammed, 40, cheerily says.
Mohammed used to borrow bikes until she finally got her own one, a shining silver and black folding bike: these are easy to store, especially when space is limited when you are a mother of seven. She now goes to her library and rides independently.
‘During lockdown I was having a bad time. Since I learned cycling, I just go out and ride when I am upset. When I am on my bike, I feel free and I don’t care about what other people might think. My bike is my best friend now,’ Mohammed adds.
The group relies on a strong network of women and social media, as well as different community centres and settings, to get others involved and spread the message.
The group meets just off Roman Road, near St Stephen’s Health Centre, every Sunday at 9.45 am. Those in the group bring their own bike or can borrow: the Tower Hamlets group is the only one that has a stock of six bikes and the council pays for their maintenance.
Salima Khanom, one of the ride leaders, introduces the newcomers and explains the safety checks and the route. Riders cycle up and down the hills paths of Mile End Park and along the narrow canal-ways, zipping past barges and boats, to end into Victoria Park. Here, they stop at the Pavilion Café before heading back to the starting point just after midday.
Khanom, from Bethnal Green, joined as a ride leader in 2021 and also learned how to ride as an adult.
After a freezing session, she says, while holding onto her bike: ‘I wasn’t doing as much cycling as I wished I had and thought it would be a great motivation to share some of my knowledge with others. It has been a good learning curve.’
Referring to gender and cultural barriers in cycling, Khanom is encouraging: ‘Hopefully we are breaking those barriers by being part of this group, showing that as a woman you can do everything you set your mind to.’
The group is constantly expanding with the hope to add a midweek ride soon. Women that wish to participate can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoyed this article, then read our piece on how Sporting Bengal FC is tackling racism in football.
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