GAZA CITY: Ola Zaqout regularly rides a bicycle as part of an unprecedented sports project she recently launched on the Gaza Strip with dozens of her Palestinian female friends.
Marking a departure from the norms in the strip that Hamas has run for 15 years, the initiative provides an opportunity for girls to ride bicycles in public places.
Its owner Rania Al-Daour calls it “Breathe Deeply” — a space for women to express themselves and lead normal lives.
Officially, there is no law prohibiting women in Gaza from riding bicycles, but under the weight of customs and traditions, it is unusual to see a woman cycling in public.
Zaqout, 23, said she felt the happiness that she had missed for years when she was able to ride a bicycle outdoors for the first time.
When she turned 10, Zaquot stopped riding bicycles following the decision of her family which considered it “a disgrace to the girl.”
She said that she loved riding her brother’s bike: “I was skilled and doing acrobatic movements in the streets.”
She said the Breathe Deeply project gives women access to the sport without restrictions and in an atmosphere of privacy.
Zaqout said she hoped that the culture of exercise spreads for women as well as for men. She looks forward to the day when she can use a bicycle in her daily life.
As a result of the prevailing atmosphere and culture since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, restrictions imposed on women — whether by an official decision or by informal means — have increased.
Al-Daour, the project owner, said its idea stemmed from her passion for returning to her childhood, the period when she was able to ride bicycles without any hindrances.
Rania, 29, a veiled woman and mother of three girls, believed that the project would provide girls with the opportunity “to practice cycling in an open space with comfort and privacy consistent with religious and community values.”
Women in Gaza need this sport, which improves psychological feelings, reduces depression, and improves body shape.
The project was launched in cooperation with the Gaza municipality and the Yarmouk Stadium in the city center was designated for women to practice the sport for five days a week in specific hours.
Al-Daour aims to “encourage women to practice the sport without shame or obstacles.”
The project enables girls aged 12 and above to ride bicycles for a symbolic fee. Rania has provided 10 bicycles in attractive colors for women, and the protection tools that this sport needs to maintain the safety and security of the participants.
Al-Daour and other trainers also coach girls who have never ridden bicycles.
Despite the encouragement Al-Daour has received, the project faced severe criticism on social media from people believed to be religious extremists, who shared pictures of unveiled girls during the opening ceremony of the project.
But Al-Daour preferred not to comment on such criticisms. “The project welcomes everyone, regardless of the appearance of the girl or the nature of her clothes. We practice sports in a playground designated by the municipality for specific hours and for girls only.”
Al-Daour emphasized that providing girls with the opportunity to practice cycling is not intended to challenge society and its traditions, but rather to help women pursue sport and gain its health and psychological benefits.
Women in Gaza need this sport, which improves psychological feelings, reduces depression, and improves body shape, according to Al-Daour.
During the opening ceremony, the Hamas-appointed Mayor of Gaza Yahya Al-Sarraj praised the project: “It encourages girls to practice sports and provides them with space to practice cycling in an atmosphere of privacy.”