Each day in Iran, more Iranian women riding motorbikes on the streets and highways, especially after the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protest movement began in September 2022. While this might be an everyday occurence in other countries, in the Islamic Republic, where authorities have refused to issue women motorcycle licences for more than four decades, it is a courageous action that representents more than a means of transport. The movement is a “symbol of courage” and part of their “civil rights struggle”, our Observers in Iran report.
Before the 1979 revolution that brought the Islamic authorities to power in Iran, women were allowed to ride motorbikes, but since then it has become a legal grey area.
According to the law, there is no outright ban on women holding motorcycle licences, but there is also no text guaranteeing this right for women. Therefore, authorities in Tehran have systematically refused to issue motorbike licences to women.
However, many Iranian lawyers and activists insist that, since Iranian women are allowed to ride motorcycles as passengers, there’s no reason to ban them from sitting in front as drivers. Women are allowed to drive all other kinds of vehicles in Iran.
Although it was a rarity to see women riding motorcycles in the streets just one year ago, it has become much more common in big cities, particularly in the capital Tehran, as images on social media and our Observers in Iran confirm.
Since September 2022, the Islamic Republic has been facing the most significant anti-regime protest in its history, under the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom”. In the crackdown on this social movement, Iranian authorities have killed 530 people, injured thousands and arrested tens of thousands.
‘I feel that I have become “normal” on the streets finally’
Nazanin (not her real name) is a young Iranian who uses a motorbike every day to go to work.
Fifteen years ago, when I was a teenager, I always wanted to ride a motorbike, but at the time it was not an option. However, five years ago, I read about an Iranian woman who travelled around the world on a motorbike, and coincidentally, at the same time, I saw a woman in our neighbourhood riding a cute yellow motorbike. It was the first time I saw a woman on a motorbike in Iran and I thought, why not me?
I borrowed a motorbike from a friend and practised in our street where I learned how to ride. After five months, I bought one for myself.
My family was not happy about it, but they knew that I would always do what I set my mind to and try to avoid confrontations with me. The main reason why, for example, my father or husband were not happy about it was simply the potential dangers for me. I don’t have a motorbike licence, so if something happened there would be trouble. They were afraid the police would arrest me. My husband was not happy, but he was very supportive.
At first they thought I only used it on weekends for fun, but then they saw that I used it every day to go back and forth to work. I resisted and they accepted that I am a grown woman and know the risks. It is my right to use a mode of transport that all women in the world are allowed to use, even if it is not legal in this country, and now they have accepted it that way.
Five years ago, I had many reactions on the street. I can say that the reactions were positive and encouraging 80% of the time and negative 20% of the time. But one thing I can say is that everyone reacted.
But since the Mahsa Amini protests began last year, I feel that I have finally become a “normal existence” on the streets. I have received far fewer reactions, positive or negative. And as always, most of the rare reactions are positive, people have accepted me as something normal, and that is incredible. The proof is that at the beginning of the Mahsa Amini protests I heard many “Woman, Life, Freedom” slogans that people chanted when they saw me, and I hear them now too, but much less.
‘Since last year, I have seen many more women on motorbikes in the streets’
I use roads where police are less likely to be, because even now I am a bit afraid of being caught by the police. But since I have been riding my motorbike, I have been stopped twice by the police. Both times they asked for my motorbike licence, acting as if women were allowed to have a licence, and I did not go for it! The first time, the policeman asked for the vehicle documents and insurance I had and gave me a ticket because my friend riding behind me was not wearing a helmet. The second time, there was no obvious reason to pull me over. After a few minutes, I realised that the policeman was just flirting with me, and in the end he just let me go! In fact, the police tried to pull me over a few more times, but I didn’t stop and they did not follow me.
For a few years, I dressed up like a boy in winter so that the policemen would not suspect that I was a girl. On the one hand, it was better because I could feel free, because no police would stop me, but on the other hand, I found it more dangerous. When other drivers see that I am a girl riding a motorbike, they behave much better, but when they think I’m a man, they drive as crazy as ever.
The number of women on motorbikes has gradually increased in recent years, but since last year and the outbreak of the Mahsa Amini protests, I have suddenly seen many more women on motorbikes in the streets. It is a symbol of courage.
It’s like the mandatory hijab, I think. Many women didn’t want to wear it, but they did not dare to take it off. But after protests began last year, many women found the courage to take off the Islamic hijab. It is the same with motorcycling: many women wanted to ride one and found the courage to do so after the protests. Since we are no longer afraid to go out on the street without a hijab, we are no longer afraid to ride a motorbike. This is the same fight for our rights.
And as far as I can see, women do not ride motorbikes for fun. I see many women who really use it as a means of transport to go to work or shopping.
I see the difference even in myself since last year: it has become even more important in the fight for our civil rights. It is a right that was stolen from me and I will fight for it every day. Since last year, I have been trying to be seen on the street, I take photos of myself and post them on social media, and I insist on riding my motorbike to my office every day. This is my daily fight for my rights.
Under the laws of the Islamic Republic, riding a motorbike without a licence is punishable by up to two months in prison and up to 8 months for a second offence. However, there have so far been almost no reports of women being prosecuted for riding motorbikes in Iran.
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