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Iranian girls out to conquer the bike

Tehran, Oct. 27 (Reuters): Thousands of Iranian women are lining up for free motorcycle riding classes as another taboo in the Islamic Republic quietly crumbles.

Although Iranian women have been driving cars for decades without opposition, after the 1979 Islamic revolution hardline clerics decided it was inappropriate for women to ride bicycles or motorbikes.

But the winds of change that swept moderate President Mohammad Khatami to power in 1997 have seen many women challenge the cycling ban, and some younger women these days even dare to try in-line roller skates in parks and quiet streets in Tehran.

Now, a motorcycle manufacturer has invited women to take motorbike classes. Less than a week into an advertising campaign, the response has been strong.

“Three to four thousand women have signed up so far... This will give a boost to our business,” Mohammad Reza Farhad-Sheikhahmad, head of sales at motorcycle maker Bana Industrial Group, said. Classes are not due to start until May and Farhad-Sheikhahmad acknowledged it had been difficult finding suitable riding instructors as they also must be women.

While he recognised that the issue of women motorbikers might draw criticism from conservatives in Iranian society, he pointed out that the Prophet Mohammad had advised Muslims to learn to ride horses, swim and fence.

“But he did not split men from women. He referred to Muslims as a whole. And in today’s world, horses are not used any longer, so bikes and motorbikes can replace them,” he said.

Just three years ago Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of the former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, came under attack from hardliners when she called for women to be allowed to ride bicycles and to dress as they liked in public.

Strict dress codes for women are still in force in Iran although there has been some relaxation in recent years. Many young women in Tehran now push their headscarves well back on the top of their heads, exposing some hair. Sandals have also made a comeback.

As with many issues in Iran, the boundaries have shifted without any official ruling and women constantly run the risk of an unexpected crackdown.

The advertisements for riding classes that appeared in some newspapers last week featured a woman riding a scooter wearing a helmet and fully covered from head to toe.

Women’s activists in Iran said they did not foresee any problem for women riding motorbikes — an ideal form of transport in the traffic-clogged streets of Tehran.

“This does not seem to be a far-fetched goal,” said Shahla Sherkat, publisher of the women’s magazine Zanan. “There are things we could not even talk about 10 years ago that are now legal.”

Others said riding a motorbike was a trivial issue in a country where women still have fewer child custody and divorce rights than men and need permission from their husband or guardian to leave the country.

“Women are faced with more basic problems than driving a motorbike,” said reformist parliamentarian Jamileh Kadivar. Focusing on motorbikes could even backfire, by allowing conservatives to complain of a slide towards liberal attitudes and drawing attention away from more serious problems faced by Iranian women, Kadivar said.

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