The fatwa must be understood in the context of a big debate in Iran earlier this year. A few months ago, the government launched an environmental campaign with the tagline: "Every Tuesday, give up your car and take your bike." Many Iranians took up the challenge.
But the new trend was not to the liking of the high-placed ultraconservatives, some of whom felt that seeing women on bicycles was contrary to Islam and constituted "indecent behaviour." This touched off intense debate in Iran about whether or not women should be authorised to ride bikes in public.
Over time, the ultraconservatives began to win the fight. On September 6, Iranian police prevented a big demonstration, which was to include Iranian actors and actresses, from taking place. Finally, on September 10 the FarsNews agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, published Khamenei's fatwa banning women from riding bikes in public spaces, such as streets and parks. That means women can only ride bicycles in spaces reserved especially for them, such as women-only parks or stadiums, which can be found in most large and mid-sized Iranian cities.
The fatwa had many Iranian women up in arms. And for the first time since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, a decision by the Supreme Leader has been openly criticised. Iranian women have been publishing photos of themselves on their bikes, notably on the Facebook page "My Stealthy Freedom," where women had previously posted photos of themselves without their veils, which are obligatory in Iran.
Two Iranian women even published a video filmed on the island of Kish after the fatwa was announced, showing them riding bicycles: "It's our absolute right and we're not going to give up", they explained.
"It's a major 'no' to the conservatives in power"
No one really knows what's going to happen. There's never been a situation like this in Iran, with citizens deciding to ignore a decision by the Supreme Leader, and even openly defying him by doing the opposite of what's been decreed. It's a major 'no' to the conservatives in power from Iranian women, especially young ones.
So far, the police haven't done anything. Before the fatwa was published, though, biking women had been stopped by the police in little towns. The police usually just asked them to pledge that they wouldn't ride their bikes in the street anymore, and let them go. Nonetheless, this didn't keep people from organising peaceful protests in these towns, to show their anger at being bugged by the police.
"The police won't be able to stop all the women who are biking in the streets"
"But with this fatwa, the situation is different. On the one hand, I think the police won't be able to stop all the women who are biking in the streets – it's technically impossible. I suspect, on the contrary, that there will be a sort of unspoken tolerance on the part of the police, like there is on the subject of the hijab. In Iran, the conservatives want to make all women wear the veil in a very strict way, but that doesn't prevent a ton of women from wearing it far back on their heads. So sometimes the police stop women a bit randomly, take them to the station for a few hours, and let them go. Sometimes they get little fines, but never anything more serious than that.
But on the other hand, I can imagine that you won't really see men and women riding bikes in groups in the streets anymore. Women will certainly try to ride their bikes in the streets, running the risk of being stopped for a few hours. Which, in general, Iranian women aren't really scared of anymore. When they get stopped for wearing their hijab in too relaxed a way, a lot of them don't take it seriously, and even make fun of the police.