How Bicycles Started to Shift Gender Norms in Zaatari Refugee Camp
Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan is the size of a small city. Home to some 80,000 Syrian refugees, the camp spans more than five square kilometers. Accessing the two hospitals, 11 schools, 27 community centres, and a patchwork of other services often entails traveling significant distances in the scorching heat—or weaving through the labyrinth of tents at night.
Suhail Abualsameed, an independent consultant, was working on a gender-based violence prevention programme in the camp when a few NGOs decided to tackle residents’ mobility problems. They ordered bikes in the hope of cutting down the long time it took to travel across the camp.
The Challenges for Women
For every Zaatari resident, the long distances between services takes up an inordinate amount of time and energy, but women often bear the brunt of the camp’s sprawling geography.
Time-intensive tasks like carrying heavy shopping bags and dropping the children off at school are tasks that usually fall to women. Distance can also be a barrier to women accessing vital services without their family’s knowledge. Using sexual and reproductive health services discretely isn’t easy when reaching them can take hours. And then there’s the risk of harassment or assault: travelling long distances by foot can mean danger for women traveling alone.
Yet, when the bikes arrived, most of them went to men. The NGOs feared that providing women with bikes might upset patriarchal power dynamics within families, offering women freedoms that their husbands might object to. Cultural norms around modesty also compounded the problem: some men feared that allowing women to engage in physical activity would draw attention to their bodies in ways that could be deemed immodest.
“Lots of residents, both men and women, had used bikes back in their hometowns in Syria,” said Suhail, “but here in the camp, because the community is a mix of people from different parts of the country, men become more protective of their own families. Men said that women should not ride bicycles because there are strangers here that will harass them, or judge them.”
At the first sign of resistance, the NGOs retreated. No one gave a convincing reasoning behind the reversal, other than a desire to not upset the local culture or offend the community. “It’s a very common behaviour of Western-run NGOs who take ‘cultural sensitivity’ to a level of avoidance and divestment,” said Suhail.
Things changed when female residents began leading the conversation. They discussed the benefits bikes might bring them, and decided to hold a rally in the camp, inviting men who supported the cause to join them. Slowly but surely, they began to shift the culture in the camp: “It still isn’t all that common for women to ride bicycles, but it’s starting to become normalised and the conversations are happening.”
For Suhail, there were two key lessons:
First, this exemplified how concerns around cultural sensitivity on the part of NGOs can create a harmful aversion to any kind of risk. Some men may have been resistant to women riding bikes, but that should not have meant that the initiative was abandoned before getting off the ground, Suhail said.
“NGOs are creating barriers for themselves,” he said. “The tools were there, the ideas were there, the need was there. It just needed someone to be courageous and say ‘Can we just try this out? Just check it out, see how it would work?’”
The second and related lesson was the importance of proper consultations with the communities NGOs and practitioners are trying to serve. Had the NGOs started dialogues with the camp’s residents—particularly women living in the camp—they would have better understood the reasons why men resisted women having bikes, and learned to counter them by empowering women to take the lead.
“Western organisations come with their own ideas of what does and doesn’t work in this culture,” said Suhail. “What Islam teaches and what women should or shouldn’t do are often decided without even talking to the community.”
Suhail Abualsameed works as an independent consultant on gender, gender-based violence prevention, strategic development and community engagement, within development and humanitarian aid contexts. He has worked in Jordan, Palestine, Greece, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Canada, USA, and Kenya. His work involves engaging with refugees and service providers to address sexual and gender based violence, with a particular attention to men and boys as both survivors and victims, as well as agents of change and prevention. Suhail also worked on building strategies and workplans within organisational and programmatic environments.