A women’s collective in Istanbul is teaching women to ride bikes and giving them a new option to get away from it all.

Every weekend for the past year, about a dozen women have gathered in front of a tiny, colorful shop in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district at 8.30 a.m. and walked down to the Bosphorus. On a helicopter landing pad nestled inside a massive open air parking lot, they have taught and learned from each other how to ride bikes.

Led by 35-year-old Hande Karaca, the Chain Breaking Women collective has been offering women cycling lessons, a skill that’s not taught to many girls and women in Turkey. 

“Women in our training always say that their brothers received bikes as gifts at very early ages,” Karaca said. “It’s like ‘Okay, Mustafa is five, he needs a bike.’ But girls receive other things as gifts, like toys. They’re told ‘don’t ride your brother’s bike.’ So they’re not treated as individuals who would ride bikes,” Karaca explained.

Trainee Vildan Ömergil, 50, said that her family didn’t think that she would need a bike when she was a child. 

“Should a girl have a bike? [My family] didn’t even consider that. I remember riding a friend’s bike once when I was little, but that’s it.”

The trainees are often women who decided once they got older that they wanted to cycle, Karaca said, adding that their families are usually not very supportive.

“Their boyfriends, husbands, fathers say ‘Oh, we don’t want anything to happen to you’,” Karaca said. “I guess women are crucial to society to work, to cook, to care for [others]. So [they] need to remain in one piece,” Karaca said.

However, Karaca believes that bikes have increased in popularity among the younger generation.

According to her, many of the women who participate in the training sessions were inspired and encouraged to cycle, and many are mothers encouraged by their children.

“I have a 15-year-old daughter who’s a great cyclist,” Ömergil said. “She even started teaching her friends and children she meets in the streets how to ride bikes. My husband is a good rider, too. So I asked myself ‘How can you not know how to cycle?’ I’ve driven cars for decades, how can I miss out on this? So, I decided to change that.”

Karaca started what she retrospectively calls a “pilot program” in September 2020. She wanted to train “bike ambassadors”, whom she describes as “women who know how to cycle and who are willing to teach other women.”

Karaca believes that being in motion is women’s natural state. Through this programme, she wanted to give them not just an opportunity for physical activity, but also the freedom to leave their houses to escape their daily lives. 

Karaca created the position of “bike ambassadors” to offer women roles of leadership in their communities. 

“[I wanted] these women to have an excuse to go outside as part of their ambassadorship and to invite other women to join them,” Karaca said. 

39-year-old bike ambassador Dilek Hasanoğlu said that women often struggle with self-confidence.

“I try to pump them up with self-esteem, and I think I’m  good at that since I’m a teacher,” Hasanoğlu says. “It really makes a difference in their learning process and motivation.”

After the initial pilot program kicked off, Karaca used connections she had established with the Netherlands Consulate in Istanbul to train prospective bike ambassadors. The consulate offered teachers and curriculum to the Chain Breaking Women, and told them they could use their facilities.

“In September and October 2020, all of the ambassadors, including myself, got trained as part of this new system we built,” Karaca said. “We learned how to explain cycling to someone without touching them at all, by only choosing the right words. It’s all about trust.”

The Netherlands Consulate’s involvement helped the group secure training space from the local municipality, and they also started collecting bike donations. Karaca repaired the donated bikes to make sure they were usable in the training sessions. 

She also sells the bikes to create a small source of income for the group, but points out that she basically lives without a salary. None of the Chain Breaking Women bike ambassadors get paid for their work, and the trainees are welcome to participate free of charge.

“We fix up the donated bikes [when necessary]. Currently, I’m doing all this myself, but I teach women about the mechanics,” Karaca said. She added that some of the donated bikes will be sold so that they can pay the rent and bills for the bike shop. “The 10 bikes we’ll have left will be enough for the training sessions,” Karaca explained.

By the end of 2021, Chain Breaking Women will have around 70 licensed bike ambassadors, and the number of trainees will be near 400. 

These numbers are small in comparison to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s bike program through which 6,000 city residents were trained in the past year. However, Chain Breaking Women’s advantage is the individual attention each bike ambassador is able to give women at training sessions.

“People say, ‘aren’t we shooting for higher numbers?’ But that’s such a male mentality”, Karaca said. “We don’t have to base everything on numbers. We’re not trying to keep score here – what matters is human connections,” she added. 

Karaca pointed out that she had stayed in touch with all 300 of the women trained through this programme and that they are a close-knit community. 

For bike ambassador Hasanoğlu, teaching another woman how to ride a bike means giving her more freedom. 

“People often frown upon women or girls cycling, so there’s an added pleasure to teaching women. Bikes mean freedom,” she explained.

57-year-old trainee Fatma Topçuoğullar said that she wanted to “tour all over” her summer home’s district once she learned how to cycle.

“I get so sad when I see people riding bikes,” Topçuoğullar said. “They can do it, so why can’t I?”

Next year, Chain Breaking Women is looking to expand its project to seven different provinces across the country. The plan is to send a pair of bike ambassadors to each of the seven cities, where they will train other bike ambassadors and eventually create a network. 

“Even if we have 1,000 ambassadors trained by the end of the year, that’s still something because this hasn’t been done before,” Karaca said.  

Update: On 5 December Karaca went to India, where she has trained several young women to be bike ambassadors.  Chain Breaking Women will start training bike ambassadors online in January, and will resume in-person training in March, when the weather gets better. 

After the nationwide program in Turkey kicks off, Karaca wants to open up a Chain Breaking Women Hostel, in which one room will always be reserved for women survivors of domestic violence and abuse. 

This Solution Journalism story was produced as a result of cooperation between Inside Turkey and Transitions.