Carmen Díaz, Ximena Paltán & Andrea Navarrete, Women’s Rights Activists
Over five days in February at the 2015 World Bicycle Forum, speakers, workshops and panelists explored how to make cities friendlier to bicyclists; and how to promote cycling as a viable mode of mobility and urban transportation. During the seventy-five parallel sessions, a new theme emerged: how can municipalities and civil society encourage more women to cycle.
While it may not seem immediately intuitive to examine urban cycling through a gendered lens, a number of studies has shown that the percentage of female cyclists in a city is an exceptionally effective way to analyse how safe it really is. Around the world, women are used as an ‘indicator species’ for pedestrian-friendly environments, due to their higher rates of risk-aversion. Gender differences can also be examined in the types of trips taken by bicycle: women tend to cycle to complete household shopping and childcare-related activities. These require safe cycling routes to reach different destinations during the day.
Emerging Innovation spoke with the leaders of three different women’s cycling collectives based in Guadalajara in Mexico, Quito in Ecuador and Bucaramanga in Colombia. These groups are slowly breaking down gender barriers and encouraging more women to cycle in their city.
In some Latin American countries, women face cultural barriers which discourage them from cycling. In Medellín, where the World Bicycle Forum was hosted, trips by female riders only account for 5% of daily trips conducted with a bicycle. When asked to describe some of the inconveniences which prevent them from cycling more often or at all, some female residents cited the city’s hot climate and risk of sweating too much, runny make-up, many instances of male pedestrians catcalling female cyclists in the streets, and fears of not being as good riders as men who were often taught to cycle as children.
Women’s cycling collectives and feminist activists across Latin America are working to find solutions to these challenges. They are creating transnational networks of activists who advocate for cycle-friendly policies that address the needs of both genders. These collectives provide a space not only to discuss mobility and transit but also open broader conversations about gender roles in Latin America. Carmen Díaz, of Femibici México, Ximena Paltán from Carishinas en Bici in Quito and Andrea María Navarrete, founder of Mujeres Bicibles in Bucaramanga shared their experiences and approaches to promoting the need for female-friendly cycling policies in their respective cities.
We are using cycling to expand traditional notions of a woman’s place in Latin American culture
Femibici México, Carishinas en Bici and Mujeres Bicibles were born out of the same frustration: the lack of female participation in existing cycling activism and the need for a women-only space to discuss gender-specific needs and advocacy. For example in Western México, gender-neutral bicycling collectives often organise weekly bike rides throughout Guadalajara. Yet as Carmen Díaz notes, these rides are not necessarily female-friendly: the pace is too fast, the timing of rides does not often work for many women and in a few cases, female cyclists reported being harassed or even assaulted while riding through the city. Femibici México was founded as a safe space for female cyclists, especially those who are learning to ride. In the tours organised by Femibici, all women can feel ‘safe and comfortable’.
Carishina en Bici was similarly founded in Quito as a safe space for female riders to plan and take part in Carishina Race events, Ecuador’s capital city’s new cycle races. The name Carishina comes from a slang pejorative reclaimed for a feminist space: a carishina in Ecuadorian slang refers to a woman who behaves ‘much like a man’. When the group was first started, the four female founders found that the fear of being called a carishina was an obstacle to women stepping out of culturally prescribed gender roles. Members from the collective decided to reclaim the name for themselves as a means to redefine gender roles and expectations in Quito.
Femibici México, Carishina en Bici and Mujeres Bicibles share several common characteristics: Mujeres Bicibles host educational bike tours where participants learn how to use a bicycle in an urban setting while Carishina en Bici host weekend rides up into the mountains outside of Quito. Femibici takes a unique approach with monthly themed rides: while men are invited to participate, women take leadership roles on the tour, taking the lead, covering the back, and organising streets crossings. Halfway through the tour, participants generally stop for a discussion on social issues such as gender inequality, environmental degradations or sexual identity. The three groups also hold mechanics workshops where members learn to fix simple engine issues.
In a growing number of Latin American cities, women’s cycling collectives are promoting the bicycle as a tool of personal independence
Andrea María Navarette was 21-years-old when she rode her first bicycle. Now the founder of Mujeres Bicibles, she initatied Hazte Bicible (be visible), an education programme for new learners. Carishina en Bici’s Hadas Madrinas (fairy godmothers) programme has more than doubled in size since it started two years ago. New learners are paired with more experienced riders – a fairy godmother – for a period of three to four months. Founder Ximena Paltán proudly shares that her own mother was one of the first participants of the programme and has since joined the collective on weekly rides.
Perhaps the most important theme that connects the three groups is their focus on using cycling as a medium for women’s liberation from traditional gender roles. All three are female-led, although they allow differing degrees of male participation in events. When asked if men are allowed to join Mujeres Bicibles, Navarette responded: “We have male friends who join our different activities, but they are not involved in making decisions.” She pointed out that “feminism is constructed with both men and women”. On the other hand, Díaz from Femibici says that they have had to repeatedly defend the need for a female-only activist space: “It is important to have a space just for women because there is already a large number of mixed groups.” In creating a collective just for women, Díaz says that Femibici “has initiated a lot of discussions about gender” in an activist space that was previously focused narrowly on promoting cycling as a mode of urban transportation.
Through participation in these empowerment activities, a small of women in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador are developing both personal and political power in their cities. Andrea María Navarette says that in Bucaramanga, “We [women] have many cultural fears about travelling by ourselves”. Yet thanks to collectives like Mujeres Bicibles, “Women are thinking and changing the city.” In Quito, Ximena Paltán says that while the Carishinas are still few, they hold outside influence in developing cycling policies: “Often in meetings, it will be ten men and one Carishina.” On a more personal level, Paltán advocates that cycling promotes more independence in personal relationships: “women do not depend on their fathers, spouses or brothers if they want to leave.”
“In the end, you become more autonomous. You lose your fear.”
This article was published in our inaugural issue Bold Beginnings