On Friday, 25th February, 2011, a group of about 50 women—mostly foreigners but with several Bangladeshis—took to the streets of Dhaka on bicycle. The ride was organized by a new group called Arohi (aa-row-hee, from the Bengali word for “rider” and the Sanskrit root “aarohana” meaning ascendance); it was their first ride.
When I first heard about the ride, I hadn’t planned to join. I haven’t cycled in Dhaka in years. The traffic is generally horrendous, and when it moves more smoothly, the speed and aggressive attitude of the drivers makes it terrifying to be vulnerable on a bicycle. Long ago were the pleasant Friday mornings when a few of us would cycle together to and around the Dhaka University campus, have breakfast at a friend’s home, then race home amidst the buses and cars.
But the organizer was so enthused, and all the women cyclists I talked to were so eager, I finally broke down and agreed to go, on my signature red folding bike. After all, there is safety both in numbers and in sticking out. So at 9 a.m. a group of young women gathered in front of the office of WBB to borrow bikes, then rode together to an art gallery, where we were delighted to find a crowd of women and bikes. Altogether there were about 30 of us, a mix of nationalities, languages, and clothing styles….but all eager to ride.
Getting to our destination, a monument on the Dhaka University campus, involved a few hairy spots. I gained confidence as I rode and happily manoeuvred between the cars and rickshaws (and less happily avoided the buses…Dhaka bus drivers unfortunately seem to have little respect for human life), but for those unused to riding in traffic, the experience must not have been so pleasant. But all around there were smiles. I found myself dancing on the bike, kicking out my feet, waving my arms, and shouting slogans: Women cycle! (It is considered unacceptable in Dhaka, and many other parts of Bangladesh, for women to ride bikes.) Cycling is independence! Cycling is joy! We are traffic!
It was hard not to get caught up in the exuberance of it all. The young Bangladeshi women whom we had taught to cycle in our bike training program were brimming over with enthusiasm: when will we do this again??? Riding home, I was on a long stretch of straight, flat, and fairly empty road. I raced, pumping hard, enjoying the adrenaline and the feeling of strength in my legs and lungs. Normally now I only ride a stationary bike, a pathetic substitute for the real thing. It felt like all the sessions on that bike, boring as they are, were practice for this exhilarating moment.
I wanted more. I wanted cycling to be part of my daily routine. The city would shrink. All sorts of places I never or rarely visit would be accessible. Exercise would be fun and wouldn’t require extra time, as it now does. These are all selfish motives. But the group that organized the ride has a deeper mission. Arohi seeks to promote cycling for women in Bangladesh. They wish to break the stigma associated with women cycling. They wish to promote freedom of mobility for women. For low income women, the time it takes to walk everywhere, and the expense and discomfort of buses, are both unaffordable. Being able to ride a bike would mean so much to such women. What to me is pure recreation and fun is to many the first step towards mobility and independence.
I hope Arohi succeeds in its goal. Not only would it make a world of difference for women, but a strong presence demanding safe conditions for cycling in Dhaka could contribute towards making cycling safe for everyone. Bless you, Arohi!
Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/arohicycling