Susan B. Anthony, 1896
With the temperature dropping, I thought I’d see fewer bicycles parked at the Naperville train station this morning; but no, the racks were full. Many were lightly dressed, none lighter than the guy with the bushy gray mustache who air-fived me as he passed, wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the 40-degree F weather and smiling. I wore four layers, gloves and a hat, but even with the wind freezing my face muscles, I smiled, too.
I can’t help smiling when I ride. Sometimes I sing. Steve Jobs described the computer as “a bicycle for our minds.” It extends human intelligence. It lets us take our minds further and faster. So do actual bicycles. Humans have done some happy thinking while pedaling.
Most cyclists I pass smile, often before I smile at them. Even the intense, spandex-clad ones nod with a gritty joy behind their wedged sunglasses. Drivers who wave me through intersections even though it’s not my turn smile. Pedestrians on the sidewalk smile. Their dogs smile.
I know why I’m smiling. I’m on a bicycle! Sometimes in a suit and tie. It’s 7:30 AM and I’m having fun. Amplify what my legs can do by connecting them to a pair of wheels and I’m grinning like a kid with a newfound superpower. So why is everyone smiling back?
My simple theory is, seeing people on bicycles makes other people happy. Most people, anyway. Unless someone ran into you or cut you off, when’s the last time you looked at a cyclist other than Lance Armstrong and got angry? Probably never.
That is why you will never get a job in the Iranian government.
That’s also why I am so proud of the Iranian women who are now engaged in the most moving (enjoy the pun) civil disobedience against a recent fatwa from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He received a question on Facebook about whether women should bicycle in public. Women have been cycling publicly in Iran for years. But when someone with more free time than sense posed the question, Ayatollah Khamenei gave the answer he wanted: “Riding a bicycle often attracts the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption, and thus contravenes women’s chastity, and it must be abandoned.” He added that it “exposes the society to sedition.”
In other words, the fatwa is about two things: coddling some men’s inability to control their eyes and minds and trying to control women’s minds and bodies.
That’s Iran’s government for you, but they’re not unique. Like any number of governments, it is afraid of vocal minorities and insensitive to the majority, particularly the female half. It may sound like religion, but it’s politics. If it’s about controlling people to maintain power and not about cultivating kindness and joy, it’s politics.
So what have thousands of Iranian women done, maintaining their solidarity through a Facebook group called My Stealthy Freedom? They are posting pictures and videos of themselves, riding their bicycles in public. This video from Vice News shows a mother and daughter who rented bicycles just to defy the ban.
It’s so simple and beautiful. For anyone, growing up can mean having the joys and freedoms of childhood taken from you. We all face moments when we must rebel and take them back. But it’s especially powerful when women and girls, who get more taken from them to begin with, decide to fight the government that’s doing it. When they fight using the supreme weapon—call it civil disobedience, call it satyagraha, call it creative nonviolence—it can be world-changing beauty.
A bicycle means being able to move faster than you or others can run. Faster, perhaps, than someone who is chasing you, faster than a mob of religious men with weapons. A bicycle also means you can go further from home: to school, inshallah, or to a job, or a political gathering.
No wonder some people don’t want women and girls riding bicycles or driving cars. Mobility can lead to motivation. They might pedal themselves to a polling place and vote. Or meet to plot sedition.
After all, Mahatma Gandhi did just that. He loved bicycles. Not many people know that, because we associate Gandhiji with marching. But he used to bicycle from Sabarmati Ashram to meetings with fellow revolutionaries, because it was faster and he could go further. Plus, I don’t think he ever learned to drive.
He thought up some revolutionary ideas on those bike rides. His cycling days ended with the Dandi Salt March and subsequent imprisonment. I love that he may have planned one of the world’s most famous walks while biking. There’s only one photo of him on a bicycle and it’s grainy and blurry because he’s in motion. His secretary is running after him, which I think is hilarious. If you look closely, you can see it on his face: he’s smiling.
I hope this exquisite protest by these brave Iranians receives the response it deserves, which is for the decent people to smile back at them and for the rest of the people, like men with nothing better to do, to forget about the fatwa, mind their own business, and let them ride by. What’s so scary about women on bicycles, anyway?
Oh yeah, “untrammelled womanhood.” That is a dangerous thing, if you’re an oppressive patriarchy. But untrammelled womanhood is an essential part of the history of Islam, going to back to Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet and the first Muslim. These Iranian cyclists, with their powers amplified and “a feeling of self-reliance and independence” may, like Gandhi, be thinking some revolutionary thoughts, thoughts which echo the fatwas and examples of thousands of Islamic women scholars over the centuries. No wonder boys on the sidewalk scowl and shout nasty things.
But in the end, who do you think makes God smile? The ones who are staring at women’s bodies and cursing as they ride by? Or the freedom-ridden women riding by, on their way to somewhere important enough to risk arrest for, and smiling?