Women on Wheels
“This is another girl…this is another girl…this one is also a girl!!!”
“This is the reaction we get from the people when we pass through a village on 'Bike Fridays',” says Shabukta, as we roll around laughing.
“I have received mostly positive comments,” says Afroza. “Today, a microbus full of girls started screaming gleefully and giving us thumbs-up while a driver in a private car was saying, 'Well done!'
“But I live in Mirpur, which is a very conservative area,” says Afroza. “So I have to hear my share of snide comments. Everyday I have to hear things like 'How terrible, a girl riding a cycle!'”
“Many people have this attitude that if you are a girl, you are not good at cycling,” says Shabukta. “Some even push or overtake you on the streets to prove their point and if you lose your balance, they will comment that before cycling on the streets, you should learn how to keep your balance. Many boys show a competitive attitude and can start racing with you. However, I just stay calm, stop and let them pass by.”
“Many people give weird looks,” says Rasna. “You just need to ignore these things.”
Shabukta or Dr. Sayeda Shabukta Malik (28) is a dentist and a public health professional while Afroza Sultana (27) is an accountant. Rasna Masud (30) is an education coordinator at Jaago Foundation. These three ladies with diversely different personalities and careers bonded over a common passion -- cycling.
Shabukta says, “My father taught me how to ride a bicycle earlier this year and from then onwards, there has been no looking back. I ride my cycle at Hatirjheel every morning, go to office biking, and go for rides in the evening. In the beginning, my family used to get worried because I was cycling so much. Now if I don't go for one day, they ask me why I didn't go!”
“I used to cycle a lot when I was a teenager,” says Rasna. “I was in the USA at that time. A year and a half ago, a friend of mine told me about BDCyclists, the main cyclists' group in Bangladesh. I joined them on their first anniversary. I was a little shaky at first. I even had two or three minor accidents (cuts and scrapes) but those didn't stop me. It took me a while to get accustomed to cycling on the busy streets of Dhaka. I am the founder of Dhanmondi Bicyclists Club (DBC), the only female founder amongst all the BDCyclists area groups in Dhaka.”
“Initially, my mother was very much against this. She even threatened to break my leg if I went outside on a cycle!” -- says Rasna with a grin. “However, the television advertisements, newspaper articles etc. slowly managed to convince her and now she doesn't worry anymore.”
Why they love cycling
“You get to beat the traffic all the time,” says Afroza. “Earlier, it used to take two and a half hours to go to my office and the same time to come back home. Now, it takes less than an hour per trip! This way, I also get to save a lot of money.”
Shabukta says, “Many of my colleagues comment that I'll 'disappear' if I cycle, since I'm quite thin! However, cycling has increased my appetite and improved my health. And obviously, for those people who need to lose weight, this is a great way to do so. I have made some amazing friends through cycling and all my stress goes away when I go on rides with them.”
“I totally agree!” -- says Rasna. “Our usual routes to Mirpur and Uttara are fun but trips to Keraniganj, Bosila bridge or outside Dhaka are the best! Bosila has a rural atmosphere and a cycling trip to Bosila bridge can be very refreshing. Many cyclists love going to Keraniganj nowadays to hang out and feast on yummy kebabs and bakorkhani. However, I would like to tell everyone to exercise caution when going to such places. It's best to go in groups and before nightfall. Those who are employed find it easier to go for night rides but they should be careful because there have been many incidents of cycles getting robbed. And when it comes to females, it's best if they go for rides in the daytime and in big groups.”
All three ladies deeply admire Fahmida Khanam, who has completed the Endomondo Challenge of 1000 km in 14 days, something that has not been accomplished yet by any other girl. She is also the second girl to finish 200 km in 1 day. The first girl to reach this milestone is Tanzin Chy, who now lives in Chittagong and cycles there regularly, which in itself is an achievement due to the conservative nature of the city.
“Fahmida apu cycles on a different level altogether,” says Shabukta. “She's our role model and I would consider it to be one of my biggest achievements in life if I am ever able to reach her level. She and others before us were inspired by Tanzin apu, who has actually cycled in a saree! Fahmida apu is just as passionate about cycling, having cycled in heels! She has a job but still manages to attend races and train. And most importantly, she's so encouraging that even your smallest achievements seem like huge ones.”
“We in turn try to inspire others,” continues Shabukta, with a smile. “Some of my female colleagues have shown interest in cycling. They say they will probably start now as the weather is cooler and the sun is a little more merciful.”
Bangladesh's changing cycling scene
“There were only 5 female cyclists when I had started,” says Rasna. “Now there are about 30 or more active female members, which is still a small number. I know that these numbers will increase over time as a new female cyclist comes to me for training in almost every training session.” Despite her extremely busy schedule, Rasna trains beginners at Dhanmondi 4/A at 6:15 am on Saturdays. She has taken the idea from the BDCyclists group, which trains beginners at Abahani field at 7 am on Saturdays.
Male cyclists are also very supportive of their female peers. However, the roads need to be better and safer, especially for female cyclists. If women in Bangladesh can be leaders of the country and climbers of the world's tallest mountains, why shouldn't they be cyclists?