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Many in Iraq regard women riding bikes as promiscuous. Some women see it as activism

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In some conservative societies, a woman deciding to use a bicycle is an act of independence - one that doesn't go over well with everyone. Iraq does not have government restrictions on cycling, but still, few women ride bikes. NPR's Ruth Sherlock asks why.

(SOUNDBITE OF BICYCLE BELLS RINGING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: On a busy shopping street in Baghdad, a row of men and women's bicycles painted in bright silvers, oranges and pinks are parked outside a store.

(Non-English language spoken).

DUAA SAADI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Duaa Saadi, a 30-year-old university graduate walking past on her way to work, tells us she could never buy one.

SAADI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Though there are no government restrictions on women's cycling in Iraq, Saadi says it's her community who would punish her if she tried to ride a bike in public.

SAADI: (Through interpreter) Oh, there would be so much talk. People would get bad ideas about me. They might curse at me or push me out of the neighborhood.

SHERLOCK: Many see the independence that cycling forwards as a sign of promiscuity. Saadi would just like to cycle to make her commute easier.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's a nice bike.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

SHERLOCK: One woman is doing just that. Siham Mahmoud is a 50-year-old manager in an Iraqi cement company. She says biking is the best antidote to life's troubles.

SIHAM MAHMOUD: I like it so, so much. Like wings - I have wings with my...

SHERLOCK: We meet Mahmoud one evening on a brightly lit street in a new development where she lives near Baghdad. Sitting on a pink bike with a white basket on the front, she says she exercises here most evenings. And she runs errands on the bike, too.

MAHMOUD: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Mahmoud says she fell in love with cycling while on a holiday in Turkey just a few years ago after she got divorced. She got her first bike around the same time as she started publishing stories about love and relationships. Last summer, she took part in an organized bike tour of Baghdad, where she was one of just two women who went for the ride. The other was a women's activist who Mahmoud met on Facebook. In wealthier neighborhoods like hers, Mahmoud says she does see teenage girls get on bikes, but often late at night so as not to be seen.

MAHMOUD: Many teenagers, girls here train around, but she's shy. She's afraid because our habits I think - yeah. Traditions, yeah.

SHERLOCK: And in addition, she says the disorder and sectarian violence that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003 made many families more conservative and protective of their kids.

MAHMOUD: (Through interpreter) I did this with my own daughter. After 2003, I wrapped her up. I made her wear a headscarf and keep a low profile. It wasn't easy on her, but I was afraid.

SHERLOCK: Mahmoud says she sees her decision to ride a bike as a form of activism. As Mahmoud cycles off for her nightly exercise, we speak with a group of men smoking beside their taxis.

(Non-English language spoken).

They say they favor women's cycling in theory, but maybe not members of their own family.

FAEZ ABBAS: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Faez Abbas says he worries his wife might get labeled as a loose woman, even a prostitute, if she rode a bike. It's attitudes like these that Mahmoud hopes to change.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Baghdad, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.