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In conversation with Iffat Tejani, founder of Evolve – the Cycling Network for Muslim Women

29th Oct 2021
In conversation with Iffat Tejani, founder of  Evolve – the Cycling Network for Muslim Women

(Photo courtesy of Iffat Tejani)

Iffat Tejani, 48, is a British Cycling Breeze Champion, British Cycling Level 1 Coach and trainee Level 2; she is the co-founder of Evolve Cycling Network. She is also on the board of trustees with Harrow Cycle Hub and in partnership with Harrow Cycle hub who have trained over 50 women to ride. Evolve held its first sportive for Muslim women, from Harrow to Windsor, consisting of 60 riders from the age of 16-65, completing the 37 and 50 miles route. Being a two time breast cancer survivor, she is keen to build Evolve – The Cycling Network for Muslim Women. The aim of Evolve is to diversify cycling and make it more inclusive within Muslim Communities.

Sport England data shows that only 10 per cent of female cyclists are from minority ethnic groups. Why do you think that is?

Cycling is considered a white man’s sport or ‘men in lycra’. Coming from an ethnic background, there is a fear of acceptance combined with the fear of falling and physically hurting yourself. The lack of female coaches whom we can relate to plays a big role in our absence from the cycling sport. The fear of acceptance is like the unacknowledged elephant in the room.

Quite often, we don’t think we are good enough to cycle. It is changing, very quickly, with the formation of Evolve, Cycle Sisters, Joy Riders and Women of Colour Cycling. We are increasing the number of female cyclists from ethnic minority communities. The governing body of British Cycling has also formed a diversity and inclusion advisory group to address and increase the number of female cyclists and cyclists from ethnic minority communities.

How did you get into cycling?

I did not know how to ride a bike as a child. I grew up in East Africa, and we just didn’t cycle. I learnt to cycle at the age of 37, and it was a diagnosis of cancer that woke me up. I have always been sporty. My husband cycles, and my kids do too. I always sat on the sidelines watching them. After the diagnosis, I really wanted to make a change, I wrote a bucket list.

Cycling and swimming were at the top of my list. As soon as my radiotherapy finished, I started searching for lessons, and I couldn’t find a coach – this is going back 10 years – until Google unearthed a St John’s ambulance driver who taught me.

After learning I started to join Breeze rides – which are a women-only branch of British Cycling that takes women out on rides all over the country – and kept on thinking wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a cycling group for Muslim women where we could cycle, exchange ideas and break down barriers? That is when the idea of creating a cycle network of women was formed. It took me a long time to form this group as I had a relapse a couple of years ago, unfortunately.

How many members does Evolve have?

Evolve has got 183 members, of which 100 are women and the rest are children aged 5 to 17.

What are the benefits of joining a cycling club?

The sense of belonging leads to kinship, people with whom you can share a slice of cake. A cycling club gives you an umbrella, a safety net and access to classes, rides and competitions alongside fellow members who share your passion, and where you can develop as a rider. This – very interestingly – also brings a sense of confidence into other aspects of a rider’s life.

Figures from Sport England showed that the number of cyclists in the first lockdown (beginning of April untill the end of May 2020) more than doubled, but that lockdown created perfect conditions for newbie cyclists as fewer motorists were on the road. Now that traffic is back to its usual busy level, how big a hurdle is road safety in reassuring Muslim women to cycle, especially when adding fears of Islamophobia and road rage to the mix?

Lockdown brought a boom in cycling, not only for women, but for men as well. I was at the diversity and cycling workshop hosted by TFL London and British Cycling to look at how we could improve the cycling experience for all women, especially when we wear the hijab, as we are very visible. The fear of road rage affects all cyclists, not only women.

There are lots of things being considered right now on how to improve our infrastructure which could segregate the cycling lanes, educate our riders, how we could provide the “bike-ability” training for adults to make them safe on the road.

There are lots of low-traffic neighbourhoods where you can take these roads to take you away from the main busy roads. There is a lot of work happening with TFL, British Cycling and several councils on how to improve infrastructure so that more people feel safe to commute by bike.

What advice do you have for Muslim women considering cycling but intimidated by the idea, particularly older ladies who may feel their opportunity has passed?

Get in touch with us! There are a lot of clubs out there, Cycle Sisters, Women of Colour. There are a lot of lessons run by councils. We are all trained as British Cycling level 1 and Level 2 coaches, and we are trained to teach you how to get comfortable on your bikes. The whole art of cycling is broken down into bite-size chunks. We are not going to get you pedalling until we feel you are confident in balancing yourself.

There are a lot of distraction techniques where we can get you pedalling without you realising. When we did our first Muslim Women Sportive – a ride of 37/50 mile ride from Harrow to Windsor, our oldest lady to complete was 65-year-old Fauzia Teja who had just learned to cycle a couple of months before. As we break down each skill, and they conquer it, that inspires confidence in the process and age, for us, is just a number.

Besides founding Evolve Cycling Network, are there any other clubs that you have supported? Could you give a few tips to other Muslim women interested in launching cycling clubs in their area?

Evolve has been blessed to be partnered up with Harrow Cycle Hub in providing services to all our communities in Harrow.

The support and the learning offered in this partnership has been instrumental in Evolve’s success. We have gone on to support the launch of Hyderi Nisa Sport Cycling Club in Streatham among others. If you are interested in launching a club, please get in touch, and we will put you in contact with British Cycling club officers, delivery managers who work with certain sections who can get you going.

Please do get in touch with us, and we can see how we can help you. At Evolve we say it starts with the first pedal, the first ride, the first puncture repair. To anyone embarking on their cycling journey, just take the first step towards it, the rest will naturally follow. Never doubt your strength.

Interview by Elham Asaad Buaras

One Response to “In conversation with Iffat Tejani, founder of Evolve – the Cycling Network for Muslim Women”

fatima fazelOctober 29, 2021

Well done Iffat. You a wonderful role model. We are proud of you

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