Turkish women put heels on wheels despite COVID-19

Izmir-born Fancy Women’s Bike Ride moves online this year, but continues to advocate clean transport and “women’s natural right to cycle and do whatever she pleases.”

“I am about to sew a bit of lace on my surgical mask,” Sema Gür, the founder of Fancy Women’s Bicycle Tour, told Duvar English on Sept. 19, a day before she would jump on her bike to participate at the main event of her grassroots movement.

2020 and its anti-pandemic measures have proven to be a challenge to the 8-years-old Fancy Women’s Bike Tour that brings together women - as well as men and members of the LGBTI community - every third week of September for the World Car Free Day. But Gur and her team simply asked the bikers to cycle in small groups or alone and post their photos online instead, with the hashtag #SKBT2020. The participants of the Fancy Women’s Bike Ride, of course, stick to the tradition of dressing up and decorating their bikes with flowers, colorful ribbons or tulle. Judging by what Gür says, the face mask is just another way to accessorize on September 20.

Launched in 2013 among a handful of women in Izmir, the Fancy Women’s Bike Ride carries multi-messages on green transport and on women’s rights. First and foremost, say its organizers, it is a plea for clean transport and the use of bicycles in everyday life - as viable transport rather than a hobby. The second message - more playfully put - is upholding  “women’s natural right to cycle and do whatever she pleases” and a way for women to claim the cities and public space.

Gür, a history teacher, laughingly explains that the tour is a result of her own experience; she was a late-starter in biking and found the biking word “decidedly unfeminine.”

“As I started cycling, I saw how male-dominated the whole thing was - the routes chosen, the lycra clothes, the soberness of bikes… So I decided that I would wear skirts, put flowers on my bike and create a movement that encourages women to cycle on their terms, with their idea of aesthetics. I put the idea of having a Fancy Women’s BikeTour on Facebook, not sure whether it would take off. [In 2013], 600 women signed up and 200 actually showed up,” she said. The rules were simple: dress up, decorate your bike, ride about 10 kilometers an hour and smile/wave at the astonished people who watch you. They are still in force today.

When the event was repeated in 2014, it was 500 people and then the movement took off. By the time it has reached its fourth year, the movement was all across Turkey from Antalya to Zonguldak. Thanks to friends of Gür and Pinzuti, it had also moved abroad - both in terms of participants and the news it has generated. Pinar Pinzuti, Gur’s partner-in-crime, calls the fancy women’s bike tour as one of Turkey’s best exports along with yogurt - uplifting and cultured.

“Turkish Cyprus joined in and so did Greece; then I moved to Milan and wanted to join in from Italy. This year, we have participants from 150 cities from 50 countries around the Car-Free Day on September 22,” she told Duvar English on phone from Milan, where she is organizing the tour for the last four years. “In many of the cities, the organizers are Turkish women, though 90 percent of the participants are local. We will have the tour in Bern, in Cologne, in Montpellier, in Washington D.C. This is a colorful, modern, emancipated celebration of women, clean transport and the use of bicycles in our daily life.” As we were talking, Pinzuti was still replying to new cities that wanted to join in. A tweeter from Lisbon, Portugal asked whether it was too late and Pinzuti replied that it was not and a new location was put together.

Responsible for the international dimension of the movement, Pinzuti pointed out that lockdowns and physical distancing have made people more aware of the joy and practicality of cycling. “We want to capitalize on this momentum and assert our right to space in this new normal,” she said. 

Both Gür and Pinzuti maintain that bicycling has come a long way in Turkey in the last five years, particularly in the Aegean portal city where the initiative is born. The Aegean city boasts that it is now possible to bike across the city, not just the waterfront and an extensive bike-sharing system, with frequent docks, is in place though it is now under heavy competition with the newly-launched scooters. The city’s mayor, Tunc Soyer, often cycles his way to work.

“Similar developments are taking place across Turkey,” Pinzuti said. “Ankara used to be a bike-free capital, but it has also implemented a bicycle plan earlier this year.”

The movement also maintains that it is not a political one and would not support a political cause - or a women’s issue- even if the organizers feel close to it. In 2016, Gür came under heavy pressure to take a stance after nurse Aysegül Terzi was attacked by a man for wearing shorts on a bus and ask all participants to wear shorts during the ride. She did not but made a point of saying in her speech that the Fancy Women “demaned respect for bicycles, for female bikers and respect for women.”

“We have always urged that women dress in the way they like, without outside interference. In my tour, you can see a transgender biker’s colorful hair next to another biker with a headscarf,” she had said in an interview then.

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals