How to make cycling better for everyone: A Muslim perspective on inclusivity
Can we do a better job of accepting and supporting fellow cyclists, no matter their background?
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Tom Würdemann is a German of mixed Syrian heritage. In the following article, he shares what it’s like being a Muslim cyclist, with a particular focus on how cycling is still a foreign thing in his community. In his opinion, this has to do with class, gender, and race.
His goal? To share the issues our sport has with inclusivity, and to give food for thought on what we can do to make cycling better for everyone. He has been inspired by the growing focus on sexism in the cycling community, and the enhanced visibility of female pro cycling, and wants to add a new facet to the discussion of our sport’s inclusivity.
Scene I: Racism
When you are married to a woman with a hijab, when you have friends who wear the hijab, you get used to the wry looks. You may also be used to being called upon for ‘companionship duty’, when you go with a friend to apartment viewings, so the chance of insults or mean treatment is lessened.
The people of the Palatinate area of south-western Germany, where I live, are known to be open-hearted and friendly, but also abrasive and rough around the edges. The great-grandfather of Donald Trump is from the region, for whatever that’s worth. In the nearby industrial town of Mannheim, multiculturalism may be an established fact, but in the forests and villages around our romantic university town of Heidelberg, as visible Muslims, we tend to stick out a little bit.
When my wife and I are riding our bikes, it is even more pronounced. We will get looks in forests and on backroads. The ‘road less travelled’ becomes a ‘road more stared at’. Old men walking their dogs in the forest turn their heads – cyclists forget to nod their head in the traditional greeting because they too are staring.
Sometimes, when pausing, you might get asked if it gets “too hot” under a hijab to ride in the summertime, which is funny but still gets annoying. Once we were asked by an older couple with suspiciously raised eyebrows: “what’cha doin’ here”, not knowing whether they were talking about our presence in ‘their’ land or merely on the forest trail.
Probably most people are just not used to seeing a woman with loose clothes and a headscarf on a mountain bike. Possibly some feel that ‘we’ are encroaching into a space that they think belongs to ‘them’. Whether they intend to or not, people from majority groups often make people from minorities feel unwelcome, or unwanted.
I personally can attest to how offbeat the concept of a non-European on a road bike can seem to others. Usually, people will consider me to be very Middle Eastern-looking. Of course looking “like” a heritage is a deceptive idea in a multicultural world, but you get what I mean.
In Germany, Arabic people will stop me in the street and tell me I look like a famous Egyptian entertainer – or ask me if I am the son of a Syrian Islamic preacher named Adnan Ibrahim. And my friends even made a meme of me, because I look like the 16th century painting of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (see below).
But in my bike attire, people will always assume I am Italian or Spanish – because the idea that ‘Arabs’ might be out riding a bike is almost as fanciful as the joke about me being a 16th century Sultan! Small, mostly harmless things like this will not discourage a passionate cyclist like me, but they might discourage people from taking up cycling in the first place.
Scene II: Class
“I have not ridden a bike in 10 years,” says my friend, as he casually rides a circle around me on the gravel bike I just got. “Why would an adult even ride a bike?”
I try explaining to him that I love riding it just for the sake of it. He says: “So, it’s like a sport to you?”
“That means, like, you ride the Tour de France?”
Being a cyclist in Germany with a Muslim background is not always easy. The bike doesn’t exactly have high social value, whereas the car is an important status symbol in our community. For many young women – and young men even more so – transitioning from the bike (and public transport) to the car is seen as an important moment of reaching adulthood. While owning an expensive car is slowly falling out of favour with the middle classes in Europe (and being supplanted by other status symbols), in working-class communities the car still retains that value.
Additionally, for many Muslims in Germany, the bike is a necessity, disposed of once other means become available. This is, in part, an issue of class. It is well-known that post-materialism has a paradoxical connection to material security: Once you have achieved financial security, you can afford to scale down.
A working-class family from a migrant community would, traditionally, use their car for lots of things many middle-class urban white families would not encounter: driving all the way down to the country of origin during the summer holidays in the car, family shopping for a whole month, and transporting more than one or two children. In that respect, the connection to the car for urban people from migrant communities might be closer to that of rural people.
Moreover, working class areas usually have worse infrastructure – less public transportation and greater distances to places of work – which then demands a greater flexibility of movement from their inhabitants. It’s not as bad as in the United States, where the recognition is reached that the last hundred years of urban planning have created and enforced racial stratification in many subtle ways. But it can be felt here too, when focusing on it.
My city of Heidelberg is a good example. Its poorest district sits on a hill (at the foot of the Königsstuhl climb, featured in a 2008 Deutschland Tour stage, where Rigoberto Urán finished second). There is a bus that goes down to the city every 20 minutes, and that is it. We roadies love our hills, but if you had to climb 400 feet (120 metres) each time you wanted to return home from the city, it might start to suck. And so, the people from that district need a car for mobility. Rich people might live on hills, too, but they have more of a choice.
On the other hand, there are plenty of clichés connecting bikes to the urban, white, German middle class, who usually inhabit centralized districts with good infrastructure. The use of big cargo e-bikes to do the school run is a big one of those clichés.
Cycling helmets is another. Wearing a helmet would get students (male and female) from my former Muslim students’ association invariably labelled as “Alman” – a “German” – because compromising style for safety is supposedly something very German, like stopping at pedestrian lights at night time, or buying too many insurance policies!
I have at least twice observed people assuming just from the fact that a helmet was worn, that one parent of that person must be German – both times correctly, by the way. Aside from discrimination, many non-white people here in Germany surely think that cycling is an exclusively white activity, undertaken by 45-year-old MAMILs who depart from their suburban single-family-homes, wearing strange clothes, to maraud on rural roads.
Thus, ideas of class and cycling can be confusing, with the use of a bike perceived as both low-status (when the rider is perceived not to be able to afford a car) but also as ‘other’ (when the way they use their bike is deemed more ‘white German’ than Muslim) and also as upper-class (because rich people do it ). “Too high” and “too low” at the same time. I experience this as a kind of socio-cultural double-bind.
Scene III: Sexism
My wife’s friend is wearing her brightest smile. She weighs the bike in her hands, picks it up, brushes over the tubes with her fingers. She has just bought her first sports bike: an MTB from a large retail chain store. To me, it looks unspectacular, but I know how important it is to her. She wants to ride the forests and hills with it and announces ambitious goals of how many kilometres she wants to ride per week.
But then, a little shadow flits across her face. She tries to lift her leg over the top tube. “What will my parents say when they see me riding this bike? I need to swing my leg over the tube like this? Is there no different way? And what about my behind, can you see it when I ride?”
I know her, so it is not a big surprise that this would be of concern to her. She has told me how her mother asked if cycling really is an appropriate sport for a young woman – where clothes are pressed tightly to the body, where you show yourself publicly in a strained position. She wears a hijab, and her modesty is important to her. And she also does not tell her father about her wish to possess a red road bike with a carbon frame – he would perceive it as wasted money and not ‘ladylike’ enough.
While she disagrees with her parents’ position on bike riding, my friend always takes care to wear long, concealing clothes when riding. I remember how we rode 70 flat, pastoral kilometres in the summer of 2020 – then, the longest ride of her life by a handful – and she was wearing a long black raincoat over her long-sleeved sport shirt and her sweatpants, and kept it closed for the whole time. She must have sweated enormously. (Incidentally she also met, for the first time, “the man with the hammer” as we call “hitting the wall” in Germany, which made us stop at a pizza parlor in a little hamlet close to the river Rhine.)
I don’t really know how to respond to her worries. I know that this mountain bike with its gently sloped top tube and the moderate reach does not offer an especially sportive posture. If she cannot ride this bike because of such concerns, her dream of a carbon road bike would be unrealistic.
Muslim women have every right to adhere to their religion and to its standards of modesty. This is a question of personal choice and religious freedom that should be self-explanatory in liberal societies. But negative stereotyping of women who choose to workout outdoors remains a problem. We do not need to look far back into European history to see for how long athletic bike riding was seen as an exclusively ‘male’ undertaking. Sadly, religiously conservative communities retain such sexist notions.
Here in Germany, it is obviously not comparable to societies like Afghanistan, where the women of the national team (you might have heard of Olympic time trialist Masumeh Ali Zada) remember that when they were younger, men tried to run them over with Jeeps when they saw women riding a bike. But because Germany is not Afghanistan, our problem is different and demands different solutions.
The job is to simply accept and support people riding their bike without resorting to stereotyping them and their culture. Similar to the question of whether a woman should be allowed to cover herself with a “Burkini” during swimming (which is forbidden in parts of France!), the discrimination of people deemed already “discriminated” by the majority surely will not do any good for their “liberation”.
Stereotyping, and narrow-mindedness will not help people to overcome limiting notions they have of themselves. If you want women to be liberated from sexism, you should support them in exploring their interests the way they like to, just like you would support any other person.
What I want to tell the readers of this article – Muslim or not – is that, thankfully, the discussion about inclusivity in cycling has been going on for a few years now. From my personal experience, I wanted to add three aspects. That of racism, that of sexism (which does not necessarily need to come from the dominant culture), and that of the class aspect.
If this article has helped you to understand more about the limitations that are still keeping people from joining or enjoying our wonderful sport – be it as a pastime or an obsession – then I have succeeded.