Engaging women for bike rides to raise awareness of violent conflict, and change perceptions

Women cycling together can create a powerful message. To date, over 1,075 women from over 30 countries have pedaled for peace in the Follow the Women for Peace (FTW) bike rides through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and into Palestine to raise awareness for the urgent need for peace and human rights for all. Its core purpose is to empower women to take action for peace and an end to violence. Outreach and mobilizing activities like women-only bike rides expand their political and public space, increase women participation and legitimacy to play a role on a local, national, regional and international level.

In each host country, FTW cyclists are supported by a large number of youth volunteers and joined by additional local women who participate only in their own country. For example, in 2009 the Jordan tasks were shared by a women-only team of former participants and new members, all volunteers. Apart from the difficulties in practicing cycling on a regular basis, participants from the four Arab hosting countries had to overcome many family, work and societal obstacles. In Jordan only 12 of the 23 trained and registered women could participate in the end. However, a total of fifty Arab women from Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon joined another 135 female participants aged 18-73 from 18 other countries (Australia, Japan, USA, Iran, Turkey, and European countries (Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, United Kingdom, with Serbia, Bulgaria, and Finland for the first time). The official number count of participants is based on actual participation in the whole ride, e.g. women who cross borders between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine; unfortunately, crossing the (Israeli controlled) King Hussein Bridge into Palestine has been reserved for those who hold Western passports excluding most Middle Eastern participants.

Over the past 6 years Follow the Women for Peace (FTW) has developed into a growing movement uniting women from all corners of the earth who ‘pedal for peace’ to make a difference for women and children in the Middle East and raise money for building playgrounds in refugee camps.

FTW started in 2004 with a catchy idea from Detta Regan/UK who recognized that cycling could be a great tool for change. Cycling women are not a common sight in Arab countries; therefore a strong and diverse women-only group pedaling for peace is a unique way of attracting media and public attention to the basic human rights each person is entitled to enjoy. By peacefully cycling together, women show solidarity, make friends across cultural, religious and geographic divides and stress that women want to be part in decision making and solutions for a better future. When women from so many different countries and backgrounds unite in a shared physical effort, an amazing synergy occurs that empowers all participating women and helps change perceptions of Middle Eastern culture and its women.

While FTW’s long term vision includes ending the occupation of Palestine, the organization has found financial support by emphasizing non-partisan goals such as changing perceptions, raising awareness, and building solidarity among women. By focusing on universal goals such as peace and human rights, and freedom of movement it avoids specific political demands. FTW has helped build the foundation for cultural and social change. Inclusiveness and diversity of participants (in age, background and physical ability) create a strong constituency of afflicted and sympathetic women that in turn creates legitimacy, as does a broad coalition of supporters and advocates. The ride provides an opportunity to accomplish doable daily goals that entail physical empowerment and creates the impetus for change within each woman's life.

The tactical use of bicycles not only attracts attention to the message, and symbolizes freedom of movement, but on the personal level, cycling for women spell self-empowerment and overcoming fear.

Women caring actively and publicly for essential human rights can build bridges of citizens and organizations that want to work for change, including male 'followers' who volunteer for technical support (handling bikes, traffic safety etc.). Decentralized organization and multiple tasks are taken over voluntarily by committed participants in each country. FTW women volunteers in Jordan developed new abilities and organizing skills, such as fundraising, giving presentations and interviews, dealing with security authorities, private and government sectors, and networking with civil society. Local organizers in the Arab host countries faced obstacles in finding sponsors, overcoming family and community opposition to female participation. Crossing borders and checkpoints proved especially difficult for different groups of Palestinian participants, esp. refugees. But it also provides the whole group with a sense for the daily humiliation under occupation, and underscores FTW’s goal of protecting freedom of movement. By involving first ladies, NGOs and as many women from the region as possible, engaging local communities along the way, carefully planning routes, and focusing on issues relevant to each locality, organizers try to avoid potentially dangerous situations. To be inclusive cycle training is offered even for beginners before the ride.

This tactic could be effectively employed in a variety of societies and on a wide range of advocacy issues. Where women are marginalized, they can thus make a collective statement that they and their concerns have to be taken into account. In Jordan, advocacy bike rides were also organized for the environment, refugees' day, and within a campaign to stop violence against women.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.