Subversive Transportation

Subversion: An attempt to transform the established social order and its structures of power, authority, and hierarchy. Subversion (Latin subvertere: overthrow) refers to a process by which the values and principles of a system in place, are contradicted or reversed. – Wikipedia

Did you know that women in Saudi Arabia are not only banned from driving, but they are also banned from riding bicycles in public areas? A Saudi official says “women may not use the bikes for transportation but “only for entertainment” and that they should shun places where young men gather “to avoid harassment,” according to Al-Jazeera. Saudi Arabia has a knack for institutionalizing the biases and discrimination that exist against women in much of the world.

Women riding bikes in places like India is also seen as “not appropriate”. During my recent visit to India, I saw many women on motorbikes, which was surprising and great to see, but I saw only one woman on a bicycle out of the thousands of people I saw on my trip. Bicycling for women in some cultures is marred by two biases. One is socioeconomic. What does it say about a woman’s caretaker and provider that she has to ride a bicycle to get around? The other is that it is simply deemed immodest to ride your bike if you are a woman. Perhaps this is because it entails using your body, hence in a way, it brings attention your body in a culturally inappropriate way.

Mostly for reasons stemming from the same line of thinking of the Saudi official mentioned above, my mom never learned how to drive. She’s depended on others to go places all her life. And now that she lives in an extremely car-oriented suburb of Arizona, where walking, biking and transit aren’t really a feasible option, her choices are more limited than when she lived in walkable cities like Zanzibar and Maputo. Though her options were limited then too because it really wasn’t safe for women to be walking, biking and taking transit by themselves in those cities.

Because of the politically unstable places they lived as well as the ideas of their generation, my parents had the ethos that it was the man’s job to go out into the “dangerous” world to get groceries, run errands and take the kids to school. The only time my mother would be out in the world would be if she were accompanied by someone else. For the most part though, this is a very old world point of view (my mother is 79) and subsequent generations of Indian women, both in India and those living in diasporas around the word, have much more freedom and mobility today.

When my mother heard that I sold my car to lead a car-free life, she protested, “No! Don’t give up your car! Your car is the key to your power and freedom!” As someone who has always been dependent on others to access the outside world, she was understandably distressed at what seemed to be me giving up my personal freedom. But for me going car-free was an act of self-empowerment and having more freedom, not less.

How, you ask? Relying on having to drive everywhere requires you to be beholden to the costs of owning a car. Having the ability to rely solely on your body to get around – as in biking or walking – is extremely empowering. And even taking transit – though it’s not free, costs a lot less than owning a car. Learning how to take transit to get around town frees you from having to own a car.

In other words, more mobility options equal more freedom and empowerment. Whenever your options are limited – say because your city is built around the car and your only option to get around if you are physically impaired, elderly, or unable to afford a car, is in a car, this is oppression. Going car-free for me was about embracing more options for getting around and not being limited to one. I still drive sometimes, with a handy Car2Go carsharing membership, so I did not give up the option to drive a car when I gave up personal ownership of a car.

Women of the world, take to your bikes and subvert Saudi Arabia’s ban on women riding their bikes in public areas and for transportation. Sure Saudi’s ban may not affect you, but we can’t rest while there are women in the world who are not allowed to ride bikes and in general have their mobility options severely limited simply because they are women. Riding your bike as a woman in the public realm for transportation is an act of subversion against the systematic cultural oppression of women around the world.