In the heart of rural Rampur, young Muslim women from highly conservative backgrounds zip along the roads on their bicycles. Some seem to have abandoned the veil for the wheel.
When her dad passed, her mother wasn’t able to feed their three daughters. Jameela was so addicted to cycling that she still hires a bicycle for half-an-hour each evening (she couldn’t afford to buy one – each cost more than Rs 1,200). “There is freedom in cycling. We are not dependent on anyone now. I can never give this up,” she said.
Jameela, Fatima, her sister, and their friend, Avakanni, all in their early 20s, have trained scores of other young women from their community in the art of cycling.
Cycling’s had crystal clear economic implications here, primarily by boosting income. Some of the women sell agricultural or other produce within a group of villages. For them, the bicycle cuts down on time wasted waiting for buses, which is crucial on poorly-connected routes.
The bicycle also gives them much more time to focus on selling their produce, enlarges the area they can cover, and increases their leisure time, too, should they choose to take a few moments off.
Once, my sister, who has also taken to cycling, told me, “It’s our right, today. We can go anywhere. Now, we don’t have to wait for the bus. I know people made dirty remarks when I started cycling, but I paid no attention.”
Small producers who used to wait for buses were often dependent on fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons to make it to the bus stop, which meant they could cover a limited number of villages to sell their produce. Some walked. Those who cannot afford bicycles still do.
Women like my mother had to rush back early to tend to their children and perform other chores, like fetching water. Now, those who have bicycles combine these different tasks with nonchalance—which means you can, even along remote roads, see a young mother with a child on the handlebars and produce in the carrier. She could be carrying two, perhaps even three, pots of water hung across the back, as she cycles toward work or home.
Yet, it would be wrong to emphasize the bicycle’s economic aspect over all else. The sense of self-respect it brings is also vital.
“Of course, it’s not economic,” Fatima said, giving me a look that made me feel stupid. “What money do I make from cycling? I lose money. I can’t afford a bicycle. But I hire one every evening just to feel the goodness. That is independence.”
After first arriving in Rampur after my education in the city, I’d seen this humble vehicle in a similar light: the bicycle as a metaphor for freedom.
“It is difficult for people to see how big this is for rural women,” Jameela explained.
“For us, cycling is a Himalayan achievement, like flying an airplane. People may laugh. Only the women know how important it is…”