Bicycling has traditionally come with its own unique hazards in Tajikistan — especially for girls trying to preserve their innocence or women hoping to find a husband.
“Back in the day, people used to say a girl risked losing her virginity if she fell from a bike,” says Halima, a 61-year-old grandmother from the village of Faizbakhsh, in the southern Vakhsh Province.
The thought weighs heavily on Halima’s mind as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her own granddaughter rides a bicycle to school every day.
“It’s dangerous,” she says in a telephone interview, adding that “it looks especially bad when a woman falls from a bike with her legs up in the air.”
Hell On Wheels
Halima, who declined to giver her full name due to her granddaughter’s fear of embarrassment, says she isn’t alone in her belief that bicycling is unladylike.
“There are many other people in the village who don’t like girls cycling,” she says, lamenting that her objections fall on deaf ears because her granddaughter “doesn’t listen to me.”
Like anywhere else, cycling has been around for decades in Tajikistan. But in rural areas the activity has traditionally been primarily for work, not pleasure, and definitely not for women.
A big reason is that deeply conservative values are often firmly entrenched in outlying areas, leading many villagers to consider bicycling inappropriate simply based on long-established gender roles.
In addition, while the Soviet Union had a proud history of bicycle production, actually using a bicycle came with a bit of a social stigma in independent Tajikistan.
To put it kindly, bicycle ownership was not seen as a sign of success.
Considering the cultural roadblocks, Dildora could be considered somewhat of a cycling pioneer in the village of Qahramon, in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd Province.
Every morning, before daybreak, the 43-year-old woman jumps on her bike and pedals to a nearby family farm to do the chores, milk the cows, and then rush fresh dairy products to the local market.
“I’ve got to finish it all very fast and return home before my children go to school,” says Dildora, who only gives her first name. “Then I go back to the market to sell vegetables. Without my bike I wouldn’t be able to cover the distance.”
It wasn’t so long ago that she would have been out of place on the area’s rutted dirt roads.
“People would look at me as if I was out of my mind, they would look down at me when I started riding a bike nearly five years ago,” Dildora says. “Everybody would turn their head and look.”
In what could be interpreted as a negative, the married mother of four notes that bicycling was commonly seen as something that could harm a woman’s chances of finding a husband.
New realities in Tajikistan have considerably changed the landscape for bicycling over the years.
High prices for automobiles and gasoline, the dire state or lack of public transportation in remote areas, and the mass departure of men working abroad as migrant workers have made bicycling a necessary and viable means of transport for girls and women, many of whom are the family breadwinners.
As a result, seeing a woman in traditional long dress, wide pants, and a kerchief riding along a dusty village road is no longer uncommon in Qahramon.
“It’s a kind of new normal now,” Dildora says. “No one even notices me.”
Dildora, however, doesn’t see bicycling as a sign of women’s liberation. And she isn’t pedaling to save the environment or her health. “For me it’s a choice made purely out of necessity,” she says. “I’d buy a car if I had money.”
Need For Speed
With no school bus or public transportation available in Vakhsh Province, local schoolgirls depend on bicycles to get to class.
With no secondary education available in the villages of Faizbakhskh, Shahdrez, and Gulbogh, many pupils ride 5 to 7 kilometers to reach Dehqonobod, where the only secondary school in the area is located.
Upon arriving at their school, one group of schoolgirls tells RFE/RL that there is not a single girl in the area who can’t ride a bike.
Sharifamoh Qosimova, a 17-year-old student, says she cycles to achieve her dream of becoming a doctor. “I need to study hard and I can’t afford being late to school,” she says as she parks her bike near the whitewashed wall of the one-story school building. “Without a bike it would have been completely impossible for me to get to school on time.”
While reluctant at first, most local parents have resigned themselves to reality, bought Chinese-made bikes for their daughters, and taught them how to ride.
But that doesn’t mean Halima — whose granddaughter was among the girl bikers RFE/RL spoke to in Vakhsh — is happy about the development.
“It just doesn’t suit a woman to be raising her legs like a man while mounting the bike,” she says.