Noor Made It
“The simple mechanism of a bicycle gave Noor Rehman courage, access to education, freedom, dignity, and, most importantly, gender esteem.”
Noor Rehman fixed her bicycle’s chain with her bare hands under the melting noon’s sunlight. To her left were green blankets of rice fields, and to her right were vast cookie-colored wheat fields.
Positioned in the middle of a muddy, unfinished road, she wiped two drops of sweat from her tiny accomplishment. Heatwaves were visible to her naked eyes, and she felt them nuzzle her back underneath her synthetic hijab. Amidst the monstrous warmth, an almost unfelt breeze moved the air intermittently.
This was an everyday occurrence in the tiny district of Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, India.
The idea of teenage girls studying and reaping education is a forbidden pleasure in the rural areas. Still, Noor and six of her girlfriends were given free bicycles by the “Arivoli Iyakkam,” or the “Light of Knowledge Movement.”
Noor is 15 years old. She lost her father to excessive alcoholism, while her mother was a daily wage worker with a five-year-old son in her arms. A typical family would’ve pressured Noor to help her mother in her everyday job. In their minds, education and the female gender did not go hand-in-hand.
But Noor’s mother foresaw a healthy future for her daughter. She wasn’t ready to see her carrying down her plight and sent her to school. The sanctioning of cycles was a simple, yet magnificent, boost to her vision.
Noor looked at her wristwatch, she sighed. It showed 9 PM for two weeks, but she forgot to ride to Abdul Chacha (her maternal uncle) every evening to get it fixed. She was already twenty minutes late at home, so she dug into her handbag, fished out her lunchbox, opened it, and ran a quick sniff check. The food still seemed edible.
She jumped right back onto her bike’s seat, pedaled quickly, and rode against the hot winds. The crooked roads were long—she couldn’t put into words how grateful she felt to have received a bicycle. There were several times during her menstrual days when she fell on the roads while walking back and forth. Her bike redeemed her spirit to study and also helped her become a more independent individual.
When Noor reached home, she rushed inside and placed her lunchbox on the hot pot of freshly made dal curry.
“What took you so long?” her mother inquired.
“The cycle’s chain fell off, Ammi. I had to fix it by myself; nobody was around. School was quite empty, too,” she replied.
“Noor, did you have your lunch, or did you bring it back home today, too?”
“I ate, Ammi. Since many kids didn’t attend today, Sharda Ji was kind enough to give me some extra food to take home.”
“Days like these, it is fine, but you seem to be getting back food every day, doesn’t it? I don’t think Sharda Ji is that kind. Moreover, the school has a mid-day meal scheme for you, and you have to eat it. I can take care of you and your little brother. You have to eat.”
“But Ammi, you have starved for days without eating. That is because you save it for the little one. I can’t see you starve!” Noor exclaimed.
“When are you going to start listening to me, haay Rabba! (oh God!)” her mother said as she left the room.
Noor took the hot lunchbox and sat next to her little brother, Siddique. She fed him some tamarind rice, which hungry little Siddique ate without wailing. She was a responsible girl that always found ways to help her mother and brother. She was powerfully grounded.
An hour later, Noor went to the town to meet Abdul Chacha to get her watch fixed.
“Look who’s here!” Abdul Chacha exclaimed as she walked in.
“Did I surprise you?” she questioned rhetorically.
“Seems like you’ve been going around to many different places with your new bicycle.”
“Yesss, isn’t it great? I’ve saved so much time. Now, I can help Ammi, and also study at home for a while.”
“Noor beta, this is an opportunity that many girls around you crave. You have it right in your palm, do not let it fly away. Make the best use of it, and make me and your Ammi proud. I am in my final days (coughs). I never thought I’d see you this happy, and I’m thankful to God and those saintly people who made this happen,” he said as a tear rushed down his cheek.
Noor hugged him and offered him a glass of water.
Abdul Chacha took out his bronze toolbox. He peered deep into the magnifying glass and fiddled with the watch.
He looked up and said, “This will take some time. Why don’t you take your bicycle and get me some tomatoes from the market? Money’s in that blue box next to the lamp.” He pointed.
Noor took some money and rode to the market, bought some fresh tomatoes, and hung the bag on the cycle’s handle. The roads were filled with huge, dried-up potholes. As she walked alongside her bike, Noor tripped over a rock while avoiding a hole, and her bag of tomatoes tumbled down all over the pathway.
A group of middle-aged men from around the corner saw what happened and burst into laughter.
“This is exactly why we don’t want you girls to ride bicycles,” one man blurted.
Noor was furious, and her eyes welled up. She quickly picked up the tomatoes from the ground, with the men’s mocking laughter in the background. She kept one tomato in her hand, though, as she pushed her bike toward them.
“At least I can read a newspaper,” she asserted with a strange new confidence. The men slipped into silence.
The very next second, Noor threw the tomato at the man’s face. Once it splashed, she couldn’t tell if he was red from the tomato’s juice, or utter embarrassment.
Noor got on her cycle, zoomed like a doe, and rode for her life.
Nobody laughed at that man. Instead, their jaws dropped in astonishment. But, it was evident they wouldn’t laugh at another girl again.
Noor sped along the road, laughed wickedly, and held a small sense of honor in what she’d just done. And the significance of the bike in her life and the lives of other girls, too. The smile on her face hinted at the essence of freedom—something which was a luxury to her ancestors and was the ultimate vision her mother had for her.
The simple mechanism of a bicycle gave Noor Rehman courage, access to education, freedom, dignity, and, most importantly, gender esteem.
Pudukkottai was the first district to initiate this program from the “Arivoli Iyakkam,” although several other movements have originated since then, based on this very idea.