Women on two wheels: A Middle East dialogue tour

'Follow the Women' is a group of 250 female cyclists, from 26 countries, seeking to lay a foundation for peace.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Pedaling for Peace: In Al-Sweida, Syria, a man offers coffee to British cyclist Carolynne Fellis. During a two-week Mideast bicycle tour, 250 women are crisscrossing Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank. Organizers say the ride challenges stereotypes and promotes intercultural dialogue.
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    Cyclists rode through Jordan this past weekend. The tour finishes on May 15 in Bethlehem. Riders say they are shattering stereotypes about women.
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As President George Bush visits the Middle East this week, more than 250 women are spreading their own message for peace – on bicycles.

The "Follow the Women" bike tour kicked off in the mountains outside of Beirut on May 4 with women pedaling from nearly 30 countries, including Turkey, Iran, Europe, and the US. The group is cycling through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank. The tour ends in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem on Thursday, May 15.

"We're hoping to dispel the myth that this region is only full of conflicts. We want to tell stories of the hospitality and the love of the people," says the tour's founder, Detta Regan of Berkshire, England. This year she's cycling with her two grown daughters, Pippa and Becky. "Meeting the people and watching how welcoming they are is always the best part."

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Making its fourth annual tour of the Middle East, "Follow the Women" is not a race. It's not even about cycling for many participants – some learned to ride just to come on the trip.

It's become a means of intercultural dialogue, a forum on two-wheels allowing women to learn firsthand about life in the Middle East. As there are no Israeli cyclists, some participants say it should not be marketed as a solidarity ride, or peace tour, because it's not bringing women from different sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together.

But three-time tour veteran Wiaam Youssef couldn't wait for the group to wheel into her home country of Syria. "Americans and Westerners have stereotypes about women here. They think they don't participate in any social activities. I'm part of changing those stereotypes and providing a new image. This bike ride is a form of peaceful protest against such stereotypes."

Ms. Youssef, who like many of the Arab participants biked in the 75-degree F. heat wearing long sleeves and a head scarf, sees empowerment of women as crucial to helping the region.

"I believe in women taking a role to make peace in the area," Youssef adds. It's a perspective shared by most in the group: that dialogue by people like themselves, and not politicians behind closed doors, is the key to improving relations between countries and laying a foundation for peace.

As a youth organizer, Ms. Regan schedules conferences and exchanges between Arab and European students. This tour is an unpaid project, but, according to her daughter Becky, it is what she lives "24/7."

The next step for Regan is a conference, possibly held in Turkey, which would focus on women and conflict in the Middle East. The Turkish team is one of the largest, with 20 riders. Their ride is sponsored by the wife of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ermine.

The Turkish women are cycling not only in the name of dialogue but in the memory of an Italian artist, Pippa Bacca, who was found raped and murdered in Turkey last month. Ms. Bacca was hitchhiking from Italy to Israel wearing a wedding dress, as part of her own "Brides on Tour" campaign. The cyclists have tied strips of wedding veils to their helmets and one woman will ride the last leg of the trip in a wedding dress "symbolically" finishing Bacca's trip.

"'Follow the Women' doesn't end with the last day of biking," Regan says. "Our hope is that it will inspire women to return home and actively work to end the conflicts of the region."

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