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The Refuge of Riding

BY MAHSHID HADI

When I was a little girl in Iran, my parents bought me a bike, and I learned to ride it in our backyard. I fell so many times, and I got back up so many times. Finally I could confidently call out, “Let go, Dad, I can do it.” From there, I wanted to ride forever. I felt so free. 

Then I turned nine. I was forced to wear the hijab, a long blouse, and loose pants, and to make sure all my skin was covered up. I attended my Jashn-e taklif ceremony, which marks the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood. I was considered a woman now.

Where I grew up, in the city of Esfahan, it is illegal for women to ride bikes. Fearing for my safety, my dad took my bike away from me. That childhood sense of freedom was now just a haze of memory. And I would spend the next decade trying to find it again.

I was driven to do what I was told I couldn’t do.

My family was male-dominated, which was typical for Iran at that time. Even as a child, I was aware that my mom was struggling against society’s expectations of her. Ultimately, she was forced to surrender her talents, her identity, her happiness, and her hope. I decided that my story was not going to be like hers.

I began to defy the rules and roles imposed upon women. For a while, I cut my hair short and wore it like a boy, and later I became an actress and a model. I began advocating for women experiencing domestic violence. I was politically active and participated in protests. I was driven to do what I was told I couldn’t do, and I accepted all the punishments awaiting me at home.

One night, I overheard my dad crying and telling my mom, “I am not sure I can protect Mahshid.” I was confused—protect me? From what?

One morning, my whole life changed.

It was early in the morning and we were all still asleep. There was a loud banging at the door, and soon there were men in our living room from the Ministry of Intelligence of the Islamic Republic in Iran (then known as VEVAK). We watched them take away all our belongings—our favourite books, family photos, money, ID cards. My mom and I were given 24 hours to put my dad (disabled following an unsuccessful surgery in 2009) in respite care and go to prison on our own feet.

What happened next is the subject of my upcoming documentary film. In summary, I fled to Turkey, and then a few years later, to Canada. But I was not free yet. I felt so lost. I yearned for the bike.

I worked for two years for enough money to buy a bike and finally, I rediscovered that feeling of freedom I’d been longing for. I also discovered bike-packing and the joys of being completely in the moment. On these long rides in the wilderness, my heartbeat harmonises with the sounds of nature. I am greeted and welcomed by other cyclists. I am part of a community where I have value.

What happened next is the subject of my upcoming documentary film. In summary, I fled to Turkey, and then a few years later, to Canada. But I was not free yet. I felt so lost. I yearned for the bike.

I worked for two years for enough money to buy a bike and finally, I rediscovered that feeling of freedom I’d been longing for. I also discovered bike-packing and the joys of being completely in the moment. On these long rides in the wilderness, my heartbeat harmonises with the sounds of nature. I am greeted and welcomed by other cyclists. I am part of a community where I have value.

I have ridden my bike in Turkey and the UK, and many beautiful places in Canada, including the Gulf Islands, and the Alaska Highway in Yukon. This winter, I will ride with my partner to the Arctic Ocean on the Dempster Highway, considered Canada’s wildest highway, on a 500-kilometre self-supported bikepacking expedition. We will produce a documentary about the ride and my life story.

I push myself so hard on the bike, taking on extreme conditions and facing my fears—and it feels right. I believe I can make a difference by finding my power on the bike, and encouraging other women to find their power as well. When we connect, we are like a chain, stronger together.

Mahshid Hadi is a radio technician and women’s advocate in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. To learn more about Mahshid’s Arctic bikepacking expedition and documentary film, visit her GoFundMe Page and follow her on Instagram.