«We had to take to the streets with our bikes. These ordinary and often neglected vehicles have now proved a necessary means during this time of war- a war that has put the people of Yemen under an illegal and inhuman siege that has restricted and limited access to food, aid, water and fuel». Bushra Al-Fusail is a 28 year-old photographer and women’s rights activist. She works in Sana’a at the International organization for migration and takes amazing pictures, but she also works for peace and to make her country a better place for women.
During these dark times for Yemen, where competing forces are struggling for control of the country, Al-Fusail had a simple and powerful idea: Don’t give up, ride a bike. «Yemen is under airstrikes from Saudi Arabia. We have a petrol crisis. They didn’t allow the petrol to come to Sana’a, Yemen’s capital and now we don’t have any petrol at all. Traditionally, biking doesn’t belong to our culture, but when you go to the streets, during the war, you will see that most of the men ride their bikes to work and go about their daily routine. In the meantime, women have to wait for very crowded public transportation under the sun for even 3 hours and they are often victims of harassment. I couldn’t go to work nor to the supermarket easily. So I was talking with my friends about this situation and I asked them: why don’t we start to bike? We need to start this to be able to go about our daily routines. We can’t just give up to the war.” This is how the #Yemeniwomenbikecampaign got started.
How did you learn to cycle? Have you ever tried it before?
Not as an adult. I biked when I was a kid. When I was a child people in Yemen were more openminded. But now you would never see a woman bike in Yemen. Yemen is a very conservative country against women. We don’t have rights to protect us.
Aren’t you afraid of biking under the airstrikes?
We have had a humanitarian pass for 5 days. I told my friends to do it safely. We shouldn’t just go and appear down on the streets. Let’s do a photo campaign and let’s see how people react, I said. I contacted my friends and I spread the word around with an invitation on Facebook. Originally eighty Yemeni girls were involved, but only twelve came. We did it very early morning because I knew we were gonna face a lot of harassment. The girls were so afraid of that. So, to prevent risks and make it possible to start again I organised the initiative in the safest way. But if we want to
change the culture, we need to change it at this time otherwise it is going to get worse and worse. This, unfortunately, is our history: women’s rights are getting worse and worse.
What do you expect from this campaign?
This campaign means that we are free to move around with a very simple means of transportation. We won’t give up, it’s a hope for women to help themselves develop. If there is no petrol we can continue our lives just by being able to bike. There’s nothing to stop us. We can barely work and go out and face the community. For example I don’t cover my face and that is a big thing for my community. So what about biking? We need to face it as Yemeni people should. We can’t just depend upon foreigners. For example, Yemeni people used not to cover their faces. We used to wear very colourful fabrics to hide our hair, but now because of the Saudi influence, we have started to wear black; people have started to become more and more conservative and narrow-minded. I’m afraid that in my country it will become illegal for girls to drive a car and not only have to cover their faces…
It’s quite strange that you are allowed to drive a car and you can’t easily ride a bike…
Exactly. And what’s even stranger is that in most of the Yemeni villages it’s ok for women to ride a donkey. It’s easier to accept a woman on a donkey in a village than to accept a girl riding a bike in the city…
And what are you planning after the campaign?
Surprisingly two women, who took part in the campaign, started to ride their bikes to work as a new routine. They found it a very simple means of transportation and also a healthy and cheap one too. After the campaign I received a lot of negative messages so I started to be very low profile. It was a bit risky and I didn’t imagine it would have reached that far. At the same time I get a lot of support and solidarity from the Yemeni people outside of Yemen and now I’m just waiting for another humanitarian pass to be able to continue in my campaign.
What about the situation in Yemen now?
It’s collapsing. They’ve started to bomb civilian houses. Now they are bombing civilian people and you never know when you will be next victim. For two days they have bombed the Old City of Sanaa; sadly, 3000 years of our historical heritage has been heavily damaged.
Where do you see your future?
I need to fill myself with the energy to be able to help my country in its needs and also to help myself face these terrible problems, and not to run away from them. We need to start to change something and the bike is a very simple idea; I was so surprised how many people I affected and gave hope to! It’s a show of resistance for women. The ‘Yemeni Women Bike’ campaign not only challenges the social structures of our country but it also opens the discussion about women’s life experiences during war and its challenges, helping us to learn how to better provide support for each other. We cycle for freedom, for movement, for justice, and for our lives. Nothing will stop us
from moving around, neither the bombs nor social taboos».
Photos by Bushra Al-Fusail