“Get on your bike” is a political refrain for ever associated with Norman Tebbit and unemployment in 1980s Britain, but will it do anything for Saudi Arabia? The country’s religious police are now said to be encouraging women to get on their bikes – even motorised versions. Riyadh paper Al-Yawm reports the news of their two-wheeled liberation as if it were some kind of enlightened breakthrough in the social order of a notoriously misogynist state. The deceit is that women, who were always banned from bicycles and motorbikes, are now going places – alone and even under their self-generated power.
In fact, the “unnamed official” who made the announcement added that women will be allowed to pedal only around parks and other “recreational areas”. They will also have to be dressed in full Islamic body coverings, and – in a darkly comic stipulation that evokes images of tandems – they will have to be accompanied by a male relative. So cycling alone, and indeed towards possible gainful employment, will remain illegal, along with voting, many sports, and a host of other basic activities many would consider a human right.
Ever since the Arab spring of 2011, and later the warm reception given to Sarah Attar when she became the first Saudi female athlete to compete in the 2012 Olympics, there has been a growing feeling that women’s rights in the Middle East are undergoing some kind of breakthrough.
In reality, strict male guardianship and an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam ensure women can use their bikes only “for entertainment”, according to the official who spoke to Al-Yawm. In other words, if they are thinking of going anywhere – least of all, as Tebbit suggested, to get a job – they should forget it.