12 women, 12 bicycles, and a love for freedom

Eves on Wheels claim Lebanon’s rowdy roads

About a year ago, Natheer Halawani spotted a young, veiled girl cycling through the souks of his hometown Tripoli. A photographer with a keen interest in people, photojournalism and visual storytelling and on top of that an enthusiastic cyclist, he tried to find her again. He never did.

He then came across Samia Baroudy and took a portrait of her and her fire-red vintage bike outside Tripoli’s popular café Ahwak. And that was the beginning of Eves on Wheels, a photographic exploration of women cycling in challenging and conservative places.

Halawani, who so far has portrayed 12 Eves in Tripoli and Beirut, revealed that he has been cycling since childhood. “I remember saving up 70,000 LBP when I was around 6-7 and buying myself a fancy bicycle on my birthday.

Growing up I used to cycle to work, a thing that my colleagues found both interesting and stupid. The happiness cycling gives me cannot be found anywhere else. And to quote Hiba, one of the Eves: "the chains have set me free".

The cyclists, aged between late teens and late thirties, liked the project and wanted to be part of it. “There are other factors, such as their background, their current situation and challenges, the impact the interview would have on them, or the impact they would have on other people,” Halawani explained their participation.

“I've had countless messages from other women telling me they're either thinking about buying a bicycle or simply sharing the pain, in some cases close friends telling me things we never really discussed before.”

The obstacles for most of the women cyclists are real and often vile. Reine Nemer told Halawani in Beirut: "I just want to be good enough on the bike to start giving catcallers the middle finger."

Being on the road, surviving bad roads, terrible drivers and sexist comments, is as difficult as it is for some to claim their right to ride: “I remember Hiba [Kayal] mentioned one time she had the hardest time convincing her family that her love towards cycling wasn't just a passing cloud,” the photographer pointed out. “The most common obstacle however is catcalling, which seemed to be exponentially worse in Beirut when compared to Tripoli. The feeling of insecurity is also a major concern, especially if alone and after sunset.”

“And thirdly, the way society looks at them, especially for those who aren't married yet, people seem to be convinced she's not going to be a good housewife…

In the case of those who want to take it further, basically become pro, like Farah Helwani, there is the unequal distribution of cycling men vs. women. Constantly being surrounded by male cyclists is something that isn't always welcome among her peers and family members.”

Kayal, learnt how to ride a bicycle at the age of 10 in Saudi Arabia – where Haifaa Al Mansour’s movie Wadjda about a girl obsessed with cycling, is set. Over twenty years would pass until Kayal, a mother of three, would ride again. “I decided to ride after my divorce and I just took the bike and rode it in Mina – and then kept riding,” she said. “I honestly love riding my bike – it is my sanctuary and my saviour. It keeps telling me that I am here. I exist. And I am surviving.”

“As I told Natheer, the bike is my Xanax. Whenever I am angry, upset, furious or sad or stressed, I let it out when I am on my bike. It shows me patience and perseverance. It shows me that I can keep going on no matter what.”

Since first cautiously claiming the Corniche in Mina, Kayal has cycled across Lebanon and joined other cyclists on long rides, including to “the horrible tunnel of Chekka. My second ride – and I am so proud of myself for having done this – was the Border to Border, which is 220km!”

“Women who don’t ride a bike in Lebanon do not really hate riding a bike or don’t know how to, but just didn’t get the chance to try riding it because ‘it is inappropriate for a girl to ride a bike’,” Joyce Joumaa also from Tripoli, pointed out. “I can see that this is a big issue since a lot of women are totally convinced by this ideology. Luckily, I was not taught to meet such rules therefore I am on this project!”

Joumaa’s father taught her how to ride a bicycle when she was eight. When quizzed, she admitted never having thought about her relationship with her bike. “But I can say that it’s a win-win relationship. I offer “her” my time, my thoughts, my energy so she can give me a sense of independence, stress relief and power,” she replied adding that “when I look at my bike, I see it as a tool for facing off that society.”

Some of the Eves are casual cyclers who primarily use their bicycles to commute. Some use it a bit more regularly. And then there are those who are taking part in races around the country.

As to their choice of wheels – the women ride anything from 1960s red vintage city bikes with mesh steel baskets to fancy sports bicycles that might often be pricier than cars, Halawani found out.

Halawani has been sharing the portraits and stories of his Eves on Wheels on Facebook and Instagram: “There was not a single story that people didn't relate to, interact with or cheer for. “

“This sort of feedback really helped the girls feel celebrated. They effectively were exposed to a different sort of society that found what they're doing to be a major leap in the right direction! This was really important for the Eves.”

Could women cycling, as in Victorian times it fuelled women’s emancipation, stand for something more symbolic in Lebanon as well? “Absolutely, you could easily tell how liberal a town/community is by the amount of women who cycle,” Halawani replied. “Aside from the degree of liberalism, I do believe it's an image of how gender-unequal a community is.”

Kayal, indeed, sees herself as setting an example to many other women and even men. “I am a person, a woman, veiled, smart, happy, active and more than this. I refuse to simply be a woman! And I send a message to women and men that you can do whatever you like in this life!”

Upon Maya Sourati’s suggestion of showcasing his portraits at Beit el Nessim Halawani is hosting an exhibition there on April 1 and 2.

The lensman hopes to also host an exhibition in Beirut and is set to continue photographing women cycling in challenging and conservative places. “As for the project itself, I don't really see an end. Just like the project helped empower a few women in Lebanon, it could have the same effect in other places too…”

For more on the project: www.natheerhalawani.com/evesonwheels

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Words By Nathalie Rosa | Photography Natheer Halawani

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