A Facebook campaign called “She Wants a Bicycle Now” led by Syrian college students is getting young people on bikes in impressive numbers.
A shout-out on social media urged participants to cycle to school and park their bikes near their classrooms, a provocative gesture, since (in stark contrast to US and EU schools) most Syrian campuses prohibit bikes.
Organizers, mostly engineering students, told Syria Untold that they aim “to change community habits and promote alternative transportation.”
Bikes reduce pollution and save Syria’s scarce petrol, which doubled in price since 2012.
Three years of brutal war have caused catastrophic losses for most Syrian businesses, but not for the city’s few bike shops. Sales are exploding as young Damascenes increasingly swap their cars for bikes to avoid epic traffic jams caused by hundreds of security checkpoints where every car is army-inspected.
This backdrop of car-woes (over half of the capital’s streets have been closed) likely underpins the wild success of the student campaign.
Hundreds of bicycles appeared on campuses; photos were shared on Facebook and supporters posted personal experiences. Professors joined in, as did local clerics. (Just a few months back only delivery men and newsboys rode bikes.)
The excellent turn-out was especially remarkable since average bike costs in Damascus hover at 400 Syrian pounds ($30), out of reach for many.
“I get to university in 20 minutes. It used to take me two hours by bus, depending on traffic,” said student Mohammad Sabbagh, “I can do whatever I want with my time now, as I don’t have to wait for the bus anymore.”
Cleric Mohammed Ali Malla posted, “To navigate the streets of Damascus, our only option is bicycles.” Another user wrote, “When I’m stuck at a checkpoint and I see 32 bicycles in front of my car, I think to myself, I really need a bike.'” Student Manar Masri said he took up cycling after he stumbled on the Facebook page, “It’s wonderful that all these people, especially young girls, want to cycle.”
In Syria, bicycles have been viewed as a poor-man’s means of transportation, with the emphasis on “man”. Biking babes had been a rarity in this conservative Muslim country. Concern over breaking traditions had stopped women, especially those wearing hijab, from using bikes.
“I wear hijab, and this was my first time riding a bike. I left my house with my brother, who encouraged me,” posted one rider, “You can do this on your own”, he told me, ‘Break your barrier of fear!’ This is where my adventure started. I continued and met many checkpoints, but everyone was very nice, some smiled and blessed me. It was an amazing and liberating experience and I encourage every girl to do the same. It feels awkward in the beginning but you quickly get used to it.”
But not everyone supports the idea. According to Middle East Online, a street seller complained as he watched a young woman ride past, “Now we’ve seen it all!”
Image of Syrian cyclists from “She Wants a Bicycle Now” Facebook page