Meet the community group inspiring Muslim women to cycle

May 09 2024

When Sarah Javaid, the founder of Cycle Sisters, wanted to get back into cycling in her thirties, she felt apprehensive – and wasn’t sure how and where she fit in to the sport.

Meet the community group inspiring Muslim women to cycle

In a bid to find a supportive community to help her get back on her bike, she established a cycling group in Waltham Forest alongside her friend and sister-in-law.

Now, eight years on, Cycle Sisters is an award-winning charity operating in 10 boroughs across London, establishing cycle groups and leading activities for over 1,500 Muslim women and girls.

The charity’s success shows the importance of creating spaces for everyone to access sport – and the benefits of addressing specific barriers.

So what is the story behind Cycle Sisters’ success – and what could others in the industry learn from their focus on community?

Access to cycling

Cycle Sisters began when its founder, Sarah Javaid, found a lack of a supportive community for Muslim women who wanted to take part in cycling.

This gap is symptomatic of wider issues in access to cycling, and to sport more broadly. Many groups, including young people, those with disabilities, and those from ethnic minority backgrounds, often face social and cultural barriers to accessing safe, welcoming, and affordable sport.

“There are huge inequalities in who accesses cycling and sport in general,” Deryn Ellis, Communications and Media Lead at Cycle Sisters, tells Global Sustainable Sport. “Women, particularly women from Muslim and ethnic minority backgrounds, are much less likely to cycle than men.”

Government statistics released earlier this year found that seven out of 10 people in the UK never cycle – but demographic factors can make it even less likely that people will ride a bike.

Some of the barriers facing Muslim women are those that are common to other groups.

“Muslim women experience similar barriers to women from all communities, be it a lack of skills and confidence to cycle on roads, or lack of access to bicycles,” says Ellis.

But there are also more specific challenges facing Muslim women who want to take up the sport.

“Muslim women may confront unique challenges such as apprehensions about racism or Islamophobia while cycling, along with uncertainties about how to cycle in modest clothing,” Ellis explains.

Cycle Sisters

Cycle Sisters addresses these unique challenges by creating a supportive community that allows Muslim women to cycle without compromising on their cultural or religious values.

The charity has established cycling groups in ten boroughs across London, led by over 90 trained volunteer Ride Leaders that reach 1,500 women each year.

The group rides meet the needs of women taking part by providing advice on cycling in modest clothing and timing around prayers. Rides run throughout the week, and while they focus on issues specific to Muslim women, are open to women of all faiths and backgrounds.

Crucially, the charity also provides free access to bikes where needed, through partnerships with local councils, and all rides are available for free.

Increasing participation for Muslim women also challenges wider-held stereotypes within the sport.

“Women have the opportunity to hone their cycling skills, supported by volunteer Ride Leaders who serve as role models – exemplifying that Muslim women can actively participate in cycling without compromising their identity or beliefs,” says Ellis.

Growing the community

Since beginning eight years ago, Cycle Sisters’ work has grown.

The charity partners with local authorities, publishes guides and advice online, and runs projects and initiatives, including Tri Sisters, an initiative to support Muslim women to take part in triathlon, and a Teen Bikers programme for girls between 13-17.

Cycle Sisters has also partnered with Cycling UK, Transport for London, and Sport England.

Importantly, the team have found that the women in the community benefit massively from the group rides – physically, mentally, and socially.

“We regularly hear incredible stories from women about how learning to cycle has changed their lives, or how our rides have had a hugely positive impact on physical or mental wellbeing,” Ellis says. “This is definitely what we are most proud of.”

The charity’s latest impact survey found that 92% of participants had improved physical and mental health, while 90% felt more confident.

The benefits of improved access and confidence also affect wider family behaviour: 52% said they now use their car less, and 46% that their family now cycles more.

The statistics show how the benefits of creating safe and accessible communities to access sport can extend beyond the individuals taking part, and even extend to social and environmental benefits.

In 2021, with the support of the London Marathon Foundation, Cycle Sisters commissioned Esther Anaya-Boig, an independent researcher, to evaluate the charity’s model and outcomes over two years.

The research found that, after attending group cycles, bike ownership increased, levels of self-confidence and life satisfaction grew, and more than two-thirds of riders had inspired friends or family to cycle too.

Looking to the future

Cycle Sisters are gaining recognition for their community work, and last month the charity received the Community Impact Award at the London Sport Awards.

The team are thoughtful about how to continue their work moving forward. This could include extending their reach by creating groups beyond the capital.

“We hope to establish groups in more boroughs across London and eventually across different cities in the UK as well,” says Ellis.

Importantly, the team are also thinking carefully about how they can continue to reach women who may benefit from tailored support.

“We’re also looking into how we can be more supportive and inclusive of a more diverse range of women,” Ellis says. “For example, neurodivergent and disabled women.”

While the charity’s work is clearly making an impact, support from local authorities as well as wider government is critical to make sport more accessible to diverse communities.

“There is still a lot of work to be done for cycling to be more representative of the diverse communities in the UK,” Ellis says. “We’d like to see more support from local and central government.”

The Cycle Sisters team are advocating for more financial support for community projects, as well as Bikeability training for adults and families.

Cycle Sisters’ story shows the real-world impact that one woman’s experience can have on communities.

Often, when it comes to improving access to sport, the solutions do not need to be complex. Identifying the barriers, and creating a simple idea to address them, can have wide-ranging positive impacts, not only for the individuals taking part but for their wider social networks.

Community and connection are powerful tools in the fight to improve access for underrepresented groups – but initiatives need to be supported by the wider industry, governing bodies and funders.

At the same time, directly addressing issues such as Islamophobia in cycling is vital if the wider cycling industry is to become more accessible and diverse.

“We champion religious, race and gender equality within the cycling world,” Ellis says.

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