Bicycling has made recent inroads in the Tunisian capital, with women leading the peloton to achieve greater mobility and break gender norms as the coronavirus pandemic boosts the two-wheeled trend.
Every Sunday morning, the Japanese garden in central Tunis is transformed into an impromptu bicycle academy for dozens of novice cyclists. The students are adults and nearly all women, who missed the chance to learn to ride as children.
Dressed in tracksuits and sneakers, the beginners ride learner cycles as they wobble around the park, a much safer venue than the traffic-clogged streets of downtown.
“I came to free myself from the burden of never having learned to ride a bicycle,” said Samia, 40, who is proud to have mastered cycling by her second training session.
“We didn’t learn as girls, it wasn’t the done thing in our culture. This patriarchal view of society meant that only boys were given bikes. Thankfully things are changing now,” she said, promising to teach her own children to ride.
The bicycle school was opened by the Tunisian Velorution (“cycle revolution”) association and has taught nearly 700 cyclists in the past two years, 97 percent of whom are women.
Each training session offers different generations and social classes a chance to mix. Women from 15 to 70 pursue a shared determination to fulfil a childhood dream.
The coronavirus lockdown saw streets empty of cars throughout the spring and caused demand for cycling lessons to soar. The association has doubled its weekly classes since recently resuming.
This time “lots of people got involved”, said Stephanie Pouessel, co-founder of Velorution Tunisia. “It’s a symbol of autonomy. A way for women to take control of their transport, and thus their life.”
Aida, a 61-year-old former maths teacher, is learning to ride in her retirement. “As mothers we taught our children to ride a bike, but we forgot to teach ourselves,” she said.
“I can start and stop by myself now. I’ve learned to brake,” she said.
Her goal now is to beat the traffic by biking through the streets.
Chahrazed, a 24-year-old student, worked up the courage to take on the Tunis traffic the day after her cycle lesson.
Now she commutes to her internship every day, a 20-minute cycle each way.
“My mother didn’t encourage me as a child. She told me I’d fall and hurt myself and make her worry,” she said.
But she wears a helmet and says riding her bike gives her a feeling of freedom.
“I feel happy, sometimes I feel like I’m flying like a bird,” she said.
Velorution is an activist movement born in France in the 1970s, which aims to promote cycling as an alternative form of transport, while changing people’s relationships with urban spaces and their neighbors.
While “transport is a top concern for Tunisians” and an issue that cycling could help resolve, obstacles remain, said Pouessel.
“Safety is a major concern, as is the culture of considering cycling a mode of transport for the poor,” she said, speaking at a local cycle center.
The center, Dar El Bisklette (house of bikes in Arabic), lobbies for urban planning in favor of cycling and offers to help local municipalities implement cycle-friendly policies.
While the pandemic offered a welcome boon to the Velorution movement, Pouessel says maintaining forward momentum will remain a challenge.
Chahrazed says motorists need to learn to respect cyclists.
“We need cycle paths in order to ride in safety,” she said.