In 2013, Sarah Zein began bicycling to avoid the traffic congestion in Damascus, Syria. What should have been a normal bike ride to and from work was interrupted by verbal sexual harassment from bystanders. This motivated her to co-found "Yalla Let's Bike" (Come on Let's Bike), an initiative that aims to defy traditional gender roles, combat overcrowded streets, and promote bicycling as a healthy and eco-friendly mode of transportation.
- Over 4,000 girls and women have participated in “Yalla Let’s Bike” cycling events;
- According to bike shop owners in Damascus, women and girls have made up 40 percent of buyers in the last two years;
- Bicycle sales have risen by 60% overall in the last few years in Damascus.
In Syria, it is socially unacceptable for women and girls to ride a bicycle. Women must either take the bus or drive. Due to recent attacks and bombings around the city, security checkpoints have been set up, making a 15-minute journey to work or school last two hours or more.
Riding a bicycle in the Syrian streets is not easy as bike paths don’t exist. The pavement can be rough, and drivers are not used to making way for bicycles. Most cyclists go without helmets.
In 2015, cycling was temporarily banned by security authorities, who said they were unsafe, given the rise in attacks and explosions. Authorities confiscated many bicycles under various pretexts. While bicycles are no longer banned, many people are still afraid to pay for or own a bike for fear that it might be confiscated.
Syrian female cyclists are determined to change the status quo and break the social stigma of bicycling. "Yalla Let's Bike” was launched in 2014 with the understanding that women and girls should be free to achieve their full potential without stigma or discrimination.
The project began at a time when armed conflict was underway, checkpoints were everywhere, funding was poor, social norms were extremely conservative, and youths were migrating out of the country.
When this crisis struck Syria, citizens were facing barriers to health and human rights. After the fighting ended, “Yalla Let’s Bike” set out to break the stereotypes of war and set a positive example of youth promoting peaceful coexistence and empowering women.
“Yalla Let’s Bike” led gender inclusive peaceful bike rides through the destroyed city of Homs under the slogan, ‘Even under debris, we shall wake up and revolt’.
To further change behavior in Syria, “Yalla Let’s Bike” posted photos of men and women bicycling side by side on Facebook to change attitudes toward female cyclists. As of 2018, their Facebook page has over 36,580 followers.
In order to remove the barriers to cycling, “Yalla Let’s Ride” has trained over 140 people to cycle confidently and 32 to become bicycle coaches. Now, those who never got the chance to learn how to bike due to poverty, cultural, or religious reasons can enjoy the experience.
Helping the planet
“Yalla Let’s Bike” is promoting bicycling in Syria as a pollution-free mode of transport that contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and creates a more livable and sustainable city. Thus far, “Yalla Let’s Bike” has successfully advocated for 10-kilometer-long bicycle paths and bicycle parking in Damascus, the first-time bicycle infrastructure has been installed in Syria.
“Yalla Let’s Bike” is promoting equality and fighting gender-based discrimination through various on-the-ground and digital behavior change campaigns. Girls and women represent almost half of the “Yalla Let’s Bike” team. They participate in decision-making and have seats on the board.
“Yalla Let’s Bike” aims to include new groups of beneficiaries (such as children) and is working toward reaching areas where they were previously not able to enter due to war.
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