Working from home due to the pandemic, Maia Woodward, Communications Manager at SAT-7, reflects on when she cycled for peace in 2004 with 250 women across the Middle East. On this Women’s Day, Maia shares the stories of some of the remarkable women she met; Middle Eastern women who experienced pain and conflict and yet still held on to hope.
As this pandemic continues, I find myself turning off the news and looking for stories of strength and inspiration from the photos scattered across my bedroom floor. They are photos of basket weavers in Damascus, a group of women holding hands and dancing on a roadside, a woman wearing a white headscarf and giving me a flower, and a photo of me hugging a beautiful young woman with a broken arm.
There are many stories from this trip back in 2004, of women who made humbling choices to be able to live through on-going conflict in their countries and just to be there – in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, with 250 women from across the middle east and the rest of the world to cycle for peace.
These women cycled to show that the Middle East was a safe place, a place of peace. In the Middle East, seeing one woman on a bicycle is curious enough without seeing 250 of them riding together! But cycling together, they were making a visible statement of solidarity for one another.
The woman with the broken arm in one of my photos was a young woman from Syria who was educated and loved her country. “I never really learned how to ride a bicycle,” she confided in me. “But when I heard about this group of women wanting to ride across the middle east to show we stand for peace, I had to join,” she explained. “I want people to know that Syria is a beautiful country, and we believe in peace. The team provided me with a bike and some training, but on the third day, I fell off and broke my arm!”
“So, are you going home?” I asked her, astonished. “No way!” came the incredulous reply. “I will ride when I can, and when my arm gets tired, I will join the Palestinian grandmothers on the bus. They seem to be having the time of their lives anyway!”
Later in the week, new friends arrived. Huda was the eldest woman in a delegation of four that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and I found out that they had driven from war-torn Iraq. This group had driven from a country being ripped apart by its second war in a decade, and yet here they were, determined to meet women across the world and to say that they believed in peace.
Over the next few days of cycling across desert roads and sleeping in Bedouin tents, their stories spread among the group. One of the women shared that she cut her hair to work in a barbershop and then as a taxi driver because she couldn’t bear the restrictions on life for women, which had become so much worse during the war. As an unmarried woman, she had decided to live as a man, to have some choice over her freedom.
I know that as we face extra demands on our mental, physical, financial, and spiritual health during this pandemic, we can remember women like these. Women around the world who are living in terrible conditions and yet are committed to reaching out and supporting each other however they can.
As a Christian woman remembering the stories of these courageous women makes me give praise and thanks to God for how he has worked in my life and all the blessings he has given me. It is also the timely reminder that whatever is happening in our lives, God requires us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).