This month we shed light on the initiative that is encouraging us to cycle! Sarah Javaid founder of Cycle Sisters answers some questions from us, Cycle Sisters has an “aim to help make cycling more inclusive by providing support and role models for other Muslim women to make cycling part of their every day lives and have the opportunity to experience all of the amazing benefits that cycling brings for us and our families.”
I wanted to come back to cycling after a 15-year gap but found it pretty overwhelming to get myself back on a bike.
I looked around for some groups to join but I couldn’t find a group that I could identify with or feel comfortable with – everyone seemed to wear lycra, go really fast and take it all too seriously! So I decided that I would start my own group with the idea of offering supportive, accessible, easy-going rides for other women like me. Initially, it started as just myself, a friend and two of my sisters-in-law and in just a few years, we have grown to have over 100 women on our rides!
Our aim is to help make cycling more inclusive by providing support and role models for other Muslim women to make cycling part of their everyday lives and have the opportunity to experience all of the amazing benefits that cycling brings for us and our families.
I cycled as a child and then gave up after being teased for not looking cool on my bike – I have distinct memories of being called a “Mushroom Head” and laughed at for wearing my helmet as I cycled around my estate. It’s a shame as a lot of children, especially girls, tend to stop cycling and other physical activity through their teenage years due to it not being “cool” and other peer pressure. I came back to cycling in my early 30s – initially I thought it would be a good way to save some money on commuting and multi-task fitting in exercise into the busy life of a working mum – it definitely did both of these things, but what was unexpected was the discovery of how great cycling would make me feel and how it would change my life! When I cycle, I feel free from the worries and stresses of day to day life, it is a bit of time that I can carve out for myself each day which always makes me feel positive and energised.
I have also found cycling a really empowering experience which has changed the way that I view myself and what I am capable of – being able to fix a puncture by myself or transport all my three children around in my cargo bike makes me feel like an everyday superhero when I’m just on the school run or going to the shops!
I had been leading rides with Cycle Sisters for about a year and started to think about how we could enable more women to join us – we started to get lots of inquiries from women who were desperate to join our rides but weren’t able to ride a bike as they never had the opportunity to learn as children. I also wanted to do more to build the skills of the women coming on our rides as ultimately the aim of Cycle Sisters is to get people cycling independently and that means that you need to feel equipped to deal with cycling on the roads by yourself and your family. A fellow sister and friend called Carolyn Axtell who runs another women’s cycle group called JoyRiders and has been a great inspiration and support for me and Cycle Sisters had recently qualified as an instructor and gave me the idea to do the training. I started working as an instructor when I was 3 months pregnant with my third child and carried on until just before I gave birth! I’m now back working as an instructor again part-time alongside my other cycle projects. As instructors we work for Cycle Confident, our local provider and offer free cycle training (funded by the council) across four levels – learn to ride for complete beginners, level 1 (off-road cycle handling skills), level 2 (on-road training in simple, moderate traffic environments) and level 3 (on-road training in more complex environments).
The best thing has got to be the sisterhood!
I have met so many amazing, inspiring women through Cycle Sisters – we have so much fun on our rides and we have tested out pretty much all of the local cafes (it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it!). There’s a lovely supportive vibe in our group where we all look out for each other and help the newer members to feel welcomed and pass on the knowledge that we’ve learned along the way – we have a very active what’s app group where people ask questions on anything from how to cycle wearing an abaya to how to fix your brakes. I am also really blessed to work with an incredible, passionate team of volunteer ride leaders who do so much behind the scenes to make the rides happen week in, week out. They are all sisters who joined as participants on the rides, some of them initially not that confident with cycling and they have progressed to being ride leaders. They are now amazing role models for other women to start cycling.
I would love to mention these amazing women by name – Khadijah, Emma, Seema, Ruby, Aliyah, Aisha A, Aisha D, Joyce, Jen, Rukaiya and Asma.
It is a lot of work and it wouldn’t be able to happen if it wasn’t for the incredible volunteers and all of the hours that they put in behind the scenes – we’re all busy working mums so it can be hard to squeeze it in – but it’s so enjoyable and rewarding that really we don’t mind the work!
We’ve had brilliant support from our local Muslim community leaders and mosques who promote our rides and cycle training. Several local mosques have also delivered khutbahs on cycling and worked with our instructors to deliver cycle lessons for children attending their madrasahs. So from within the Muslim community the support has been great.
Sometimes we do get some backlash from people not understanding why there should be a group specifically for Muslim women – they feel that it is encouraging segregation and even say that it is racist. However, we are very clear that there is a need for a safe, comfortable space which accommodates our needs and allows us to cycle without feeling we have to compromise our values or lifestyle choices. While we are targeting Muslim women and ensure that our rides are set up to meet our needs, we are not exclusive and we do have a number of regulars from other backgrounds who feel that our group also meet their needs which is a great opportunity to bring people together.
Not owning a bike is one of the most common barriers that we come across and we’ve been able to make a partnership with our local council in Waltham Forest so we can lend out bikes for our rides. This has been a key factor in our success in enabling more women to cycle as often people are not ready or able to buy a bike straight away – what we have seen is that this initial support to get going in most cases does lead to people buying their own bikes – once they experience the benefits of cycling for themselves, they are really motivated to find a way to buy a bike and overcome issues around storage. We also run bike maintenance courses funded by the council during school hours so women can learn the basic skills needed to keep a bike running and our ride leaders pass on tips during the rides as well.
We really want to overcome the perception that cycling is inaccessible and requires specialist equipment as really all you need is access to a bike! Aside from walking, cycling is actually the most democratic form of transport as the ongoing costs are pretty minimal.
Firstly check out if your local council offers free cycle training – this is a great way to be able to get back into cycling if you’ve not done it in a while or to learn to cycle from scratch. You will probably be able to request a female instructor if that’s what you would prefer. Aside from this, then look out for local groups that seem welcoming and supportive – riding in a group is really fun and really helps to build your confidence by giving you a chance to ride on roads in the safety of a group and get to learn new routes around your area. Breeze is a nation-wide network of women-only rides throughout the UK which may have rides in your local area.
If you can’t find a group, then think about starting your own one – find a few friends who want to start cycling and do it together!
If you’re not ready to buy a bike, then ask around as lots of people have bikes lying around in a shed which could be got back into action. Many councils also offer free Dr. Bike sessions where bike mechanics will give your bike a once over.
This is one of the reasons why we have low cycling rates in this country – only 2% of journeys are made by bike as in most places we just don’t have decent infrastructure to make cycling safe and appealing for the masses. My 3 top tips for cycling on the roads are:
Firstly you need to make sure that you know what to do on the roads and what your rights are as a cyclist. We are made to feel that we are second class citizens being on a bike and we should keep out of the way! Actually by riding in a much more assertive position (known as primary position or ‘taking the lane’) then we keep ourselves visible and safe. Taking part in cycle training (known as “Bikeability”) will equip you with this knowledge and with that comes confidence about how to handle different road situations.
Secondly, there is a whole new world to discover on a bike! There are so many different route options that as a driver, user of public transport or even a pedestrian we are just not aware of. Use a cycle journey planner like Cycle Streets to figure out new routes along back roads, along rivers and using cycle infrastructure where it exists to help make your journey more enjoyable and in many cases quicker.
Lastly, I would recommend to just start small and build up your distances as your confidence grows. When I first started cycling I got a folding bike and spent more time carrying my bike than I did riding it! I would just cycle about 5 minutes to the station. I would never have imagined that I would have ended up getting a cargo bike and pretty much replacing my car use by cycling everywhere. There’s also no shame in getting off your bike if you need to – to cross a busy road or walk up a hill.
My children absolutely love going in the cargo bike – they always ask “is it a long journey mama?” and when I say yes, they are like “YESSSSSS!!!” It makes me happy that I am a role model for them and showing them how much fun cycling is and how important it is to get that bit of activity in every day – most of us spend too much time sitting around but especially children are not as active as they need to be – cycling is a brilliant way to build in some daily activity.
Recently I went to Guernsey with my 7 year old and we hired bikes to cycle around the coast for the afternoon – he was pretty moany at the start but once he got going, he loved it and was so proud of his achievement of cycling nearly 13 miles!
We have a problem with cyclists in this country – at best we are viewed as a nuisance but worryingly sometimes this negative attitude can lead to cyclists being verbally abused and even puts us at risk of accidents as drivers pass too closely or cut us up. Add to this being a woman, or a woman of colour, or a visibly Muslim woman, and it can be much worse. I’ve been called all sorts of names while I’ve been out on my bike as well as being told to “go back home.”
But on the whole people are respectful and tolerant and we get lots of smiles and waves as we cycle along in a group.
If you’re on Facebook, then like the Cycle Sisters page here and join the Muslim Women Cyclists group here. For anyone who uses strava, there is also a Muslim Women Cyclists group which you can join. You can also view our Cycle Sisters short video here.
We really want to challenge the stereotype of a “cyclist” – the media perpetuate the image that cycling is for middle-aged white men in lycra – there’s even an acronym for it – MAMIL! But the reality is that cycling is diverse – lots of different people from all backgrounds cycle on all sorts of bikes and for all sorts of reasons – but we don’t see ourselves reflected in the imagery or stories about cycling. This is a problem because many Muslim women just don’t see themselves as a cyclist for the simple reason that they don’t socially identify with those they see cycling.
We are working with cycling organisations such as the London Cycling Campaign, British Cycling, and Cycling UK to help change this.
It is not one of our main aims, but a by-product of our work is that stereotypes about Musllim women are being challenged – being on our bikes is asserting our independence, freedom and confidence to be who we are! If you come to Waltham Forest where we are based, you can’t go far without seeing a hijabi on a bike so we have really normalised cycling within our communities and hopefully, this will inspire others in other areas too!
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