‘Cycling girls’ ride for freedom

Iraqi Marina Jaber, left, rides a bicycle among others in Baghdad. (AFP)
Updated 11 February 2017

‘Cycling girls’ ride for freedom

BAGHDAD: Her name is Marina Jaber but to many she is “the girl on the bike,” a young Baghdad artist inspiring Iraqi women to exercise their rights one pedal at a time.
In Iraq’s conservative society, the young woman cuts an unusual figure when she rides her red bicycle in the streets of the capital, her long black hair swaying in the wind.
What started off as an art project became a social media meme and then a civil society movement. A group of women now gathers regularly to cycle in Baghdad and break new ground.
Or is it old ground?
“My mother and my grandmother used to ride bicycles. It used to be normal,” Jaber told AFP. She said she questioned why she had felt so proud when she rode a bike during a visit to London last year. “It’s only a bike. It’s a simple thing. It should be normal,” the 25-year-old said.
“Does society just not allow us to do certain things or does it start not accepting those certain things because we stopped doing them? That was an important question that had been on my mind for a long time.”
To find the answer, Jaber started cycling in her neighborhood and made that a project for a contemporary arts institute called Tarkib — an Arabic word which can mean installation and assemblage.
A picture Jaber posted of herself cycling alongside an old man riding his own bicycle and staring at her in reproving disbelief made the rounds on Iraqi social media last year.
“With that old man, I found my answer. For more than five minutes, I was riding next to him and he kept looking at me. He did not seem to like it,” Jaber said.
“Then he stopped looking and went about his business. All the people in the area got used to it, they stopped looking at me... I understood then that I am society. If I want something, I should start doing it.”
Jaber instantly became an inspiration for many girls and women across the country yearning to lead their lives the way they choose and not bow to more or less recent social, tribal or religious restrictions.
Hashtags started spreading on the Internet and Jaber was overwhelmed by the response she got.
“I received a lot of messages... mostly from young girls. Maybe they needed somebody to stand up for their rights,” she said.
Her red bicycle became the centerpiece of her installation at an exhibit in Baghdad last year and Jaber’s action joined a long global history of cycling as a symbol of women’s emancipation.
In England, suffragette Alice Hawkins once famously rode down the streets of Leicester to promote women’s rights — scandalously wearing pantaloons.
More than a century later, the symbol is still potent in the Middle East, as exemplified in the 2012 Saudi film “Wadjda” about an 11-year-old girl from Riyadh who defies society and her mother’s disallowance by buying the green bike of her dreams with the prize money from winning a Qur'anic recitation contest.
Jaber’s story also echoes that of Bushra Al-Fusail, a photographer from Yemen who started her country’s first female cycling group in 2015 to affirm women’s rights and protest against the war.
In Iraq, women from across the country started posting pictures of themselves on bicycles and dozens have joined group bike rides in the streets of Baghdad, which are closed off to traffic by police who escort the cyclists. “It’s not illegal for a woman to cycle in Iraq but because of the war we Iraqis stopped doing a lot of things we used to do... we are too busy with death,” Jaber said.
Jumana Mumtaz, a broadcast journalist from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, posted a picture of herself on a bicycle from the edge of the battlefield in December to support Jaber’s initiative.
“It was a way of challenging Daesh and extremist thought,” she said. “Also, a lot of people in Iraq, not just Daesh, think women should not be able to do what they want and think our behavior is shameful... Marina got many very aggressive comments and so did I,” Mumtaz said.
Most of those comments came from men but they are also welcome when Jaber’s group organizes a ride.
“It’s liberating for a man too. Everyone looks so happy, the city even looks more beautiful like this. It feels like the normal life we want,” said Mustafa Ahmed, a young army officer, at a recent rally.
“There were some negative reactions at first but the comment I hear the most now is ‘Aah, this is the Baghdad we know’,” said Jaber, who has received several offers to help distribute free bikes to Iraqi women.
“Now I want to support girls to stop being scared. We can change reality.”


Rockets hit Iraq base hosting US troops, stoking concerns

Updated 45 min 14 sec ago

Rockets hit Iraq base hosting US troops, stoking concerns

  • Security sources said they believed Kataib Hezbollah was responsible
  • More than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah airbase in northern Iraq last month

BAGHDAD: Two rockets hit the Al-Balad air base, north of Baghdad, late Thursday, Iraqi security forces said, the latest in a flurry of attacks on bases hosting US troops that has alarmed US officials.
It came as Washington considers deploying between 5,000 and 7,000 fresh troops to the Middle East to counter its arch-foe Iran, a US official told AFP.
Thursday’s attack with Katyusha rockets did not cause any casualties or material damage but “came close,” a US official told AFP.
Washington has been concerned by a recent spate of attacks on Iraqi bases where some 5,200 US troops are deployed to help Iraqi forces ensure militants do not regroup.
The attacks, targeting either bases or the US embassy in Baghdad, have averaged more than one per week over the past six weeks.
“There is a spike in rocket attacks,” a second US official said, adding that although they had caused no US casualties and little damage, they were increasingly worrying.
Five rockets hit Al-Asad airbase on December 3, just four days after Vice President Mike Pence visited troops there.
Security sources said they believed Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite faction close to Tehran and blacklisted by Washington, was responsible.
More than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah airbase in northern Iraq last month, one of the largest attacks in recent months to hit an area where US troops are based.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the attacks and Washington has not blamed any particular faction.
But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed similar attacks on Iran-aligned groups.
Iran holds vast sway in Iraq, especially among the more hard-line elements of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force largely made up of Shiite militias backed by Tehran.
Asked whether the repeated rocket attacks made the Hashed a bigger threat to US troops than the Daesh group, the official agreed.
“It is. The question is, when is someone going to call BS?” he said.
Multiple US diplomatic and military sources have told AFP of their growing frustration with such attacks.
They say they are relying on their Iraqi partners to play a “de-conflicting” role between them and the Hashed to prevent any clashes.
That is a complicated task, as the Hashed has been ordered to integrate with the regular security forces but many of its fighters continue to operate with some independence.
“We all recognize the danger out here. Sometimes our Iraqi partners say, well what can I do?” the official said.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have soared since the Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and reimposed crippling sanctions.
Baghdad — which is close to both countries and whose many security forces have been trained by either the US or Iran — is worried about being caught in the middle.