KATOWICE, Poland (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two years after Syria’s war began, Sarah Zein found the daily drive to her university classes in Damascus becoming impossible.
Heavy traffic and mushrooming checkpoints meant the 15-minute journey now took close to an hour. So Zein did something daring: She pulled her childhood bicycle out of storage.
In Syria, a society where taboos about women riding bikes remain strong, “there’s a belief bicycle seats deflower women, and virginity is a big deal”, said the 24-year-old.
That meant her ride to university was far quicker, but no fun.
“I wasn’t expecting the astonishment of bystanders and the sexual harassment,” Zein recalled. “Men yelled, ‘I wish I could be your bicycle seat’. I went home crying.”
To begin with, she did not think she would try again. But, in the end, she did – at first with a male fellow student and gradually with other women as well.
“I realized if I give up, and everyone gives up, who will do the change? It’s our responsibility,” she said on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Poland.
“I don’t like the idea that women are victims. We should take action. We should do something about it. We have to protect our rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Zein now leads “Yalla Let’s Bike”, a social movement that has helped get more than 4,000 women cycling on the streets of Syria’s capital.
Working with the Damascus governor, the group has pushed through the installation of 10 km (6 miles) of bicycle lanes in the city, which previously had none, as well as new bike parks.
It has also led training for women, with 32 female instructors now teaching others to ride.
The movement has organized mass bike rides for both men and women that have attracted up to 1,000 people, including one through the streets of battle-scarred Homs.
The cycling drive is helping cut planet-warming emissions in the crowded Syrian capital by getting more people out of cars, while opening up new freedoms for women, Zein said.
It is also a bright spot in a nation dragged down by nearly eight years of conflict and destruction.
“There are people out there trying to do something (positive),” said the young cyclist.
‘YOU JUST FEEL HAPPY’
Zein’s work has been recognized by the U.N. “Momentum for Change” initiative, which showcases novel solutions to tackling climate change by communities, cities, companies and others.
U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa said at the talks this week that the Damascus project showed climate action was possible, even in some of the least promising places.
“Be creative and find a way of doing things - even if the conditions of the situation normally would suggest there is little hope you can change something,” she urged.
Zein’s cycling movement, organized in part through Facebook, has faced plenty of challenges, not least that few women in Damascus knew initially how to cycle, or had access to a bike.
“Boys and men all have bicycles. They get to learn how to ride a bike,” said Zein, who studied French literature.
But when putting together a first mass ride for women, her group had to tell participants where to rent bicycles, and organize lessons for them, she said.
Overcoming objections from parents and other relatives also took time - though it has become easier as many more women take to the streets.
Besides the benefits for the climate and women’s rights, cycling is good for mental health, she said.
“You just feel happy when you ride a bicycle, more than with any other source of transportation,” said Zein, who now works on disability issues for the United Nations Development Programme.
“It’s scientifically proven. It releases endorphins. You’re connected with nature.”
Now, four years after launching her campaign, she usually sees at least several other women out cycling when she heads somewhere on her bike, she said.
Bicycle sales in Damascus, meanwhile, have risen 60 percent in the last two years – and shops report that 40 percent of the buyers are women.
On a bicycle, “they feel free”, said Zein. “It’s liberating women.”