Muslim Athletes Ride for Rights in Iowa’s Famous Bike Event

A group of international women are cycling across the state to promote equality through sports.

Hajar Abulfazl prepares for RAGBRAI. (Photo: Facebook)

Jul 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

For many Americans, learning how to ride a bike is a rite of passage, a skill learned in childhood that can be picked up at a moment’s notice. The ability to cycle at will might not be written into the United States’ list of freedoms, but it’s a right many men and women take for granted.

To promote women’s participation in sports as a fundamental right, a group of women invited nine international female Muslim athletes to participate in Iowa’s annual statewide bike ride.

RAGBRAI, or the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, turns the Midwestern state into something of a “Mardi-Gras on wheels” with a seven-day trek from the western to eastern border. The 43rd annual ride kicked off on Sunday, with cyclists from all over the country heading to the noncompetitive event.

This year, Team Shirzanan—a Persian word that translates to “female heroes”—is getting in on the action. A group of 12 Iowa natives decided to celebrate their 50th birthdays by participating in the ride, local outlet The Gazette reports. One of them, Mara Gubuan, is the president of Shirzanan Global, a nonprofit organization that promotes Muslim women’s participation in sports. Her role inspired the Iowa women to sponsor the nine athletes and an accompanying mission: the right to ride.

(Photo: Facebook)

“Our mission was to really promote female participation in sports as a female right, and our hope was to kind of bring that to the attention and help inspire other women to pursue athletics,” team member Nanci Freed told The Gazette.

So, Why Should You Care? Muslim girls and women face many barriers to sports participation, from an inability to participate in mixed gender events to perceived immodesty for performing in public. For women living in religious Middle Eastern countries, straddling a bicycle and riding around town garners both verbal and physical harassment. The bicycle is particularly fraught because it is also a means of transportation, allowing female riders the freedom to travel to schools and medical facilities.

The Muslim members of Team Shirzanan have already broken down gender barriers and are accomplished athletes in their home countries. “We wanted to identify and partner with women who had already broken the stereotypes,” explained Freed. “They come to represent that it is possible.”

That doesn’t mean the ride will be easy. An Afghani soccer player, a Pakistani swimmer, and an Iranian snowboarder are trading in their cleats and boards for helmets and sneakers, with little experience on two wheels.

Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to scale Mount Everest, is particularly nervous. She’s only been bicycling for a few months and told The Des Moines Register that she “freaks out” when cars come near her and still struggles to make clean turns.

Luckily for Moharrak and her teammates, cycling is just one component of RAGBRAI. It’s known for being a friendly, supportive event, so the women look forward to some Midwestern hospitality after they’ve completed their 50-plus miles each day.

Members of Team Shirzanan. (Photo: Facebook)
Gearing up for the ride. (Photo: Facebook)