Project Manager at Cycle Sisters
Q: Please tell me about yourself.
A: My name is Sabeha and I have a very long history and relationship with Tower Hamlets that spans almost all my life. I grew up there so it’s always going to be home for me. I also went to school and university in the borough as well as and working there. Through my working life I’ve been involved in loads of different community organisations across the borough, but mainly in Bethnal Green. I used to lead the Boundary Women’s Project at St Hilda’s East Community Centre and co-founded Juta Shoes, both of which worked with marginalised and social excluded women in Bethnal Green. Sadly, I no longer live in Tower Hamlets, but through my work, I still get to work with the community I love so much all the time. I made the shift to Sustrans in late 2021 after I discovered my renewed love and passion for cycling through the pandemic. Like many, I found myself in completely unchartered waters! I was furloughed, stressed, home-schooling 2 of my kids, looking after my mum and felt completely isolated. Understandably and as a result, my mental health declined. My husband (an avid cyclist of over 20 years) and I decided to start cycling. The process was completely transformative – I felt more energetic and less anxious, it was a lifechanging experience. I really wanted to share this with the world and was really fortunate to project manage a brand-new Muslim women’s cycling project in Tower Hamlets for ‘Cycle Sisters’. This is an amazing project that trains local women volunteers to become ride leaders and role models. This team now leads free weekly rides every Sunday from Bow, with the offer of borrowing a bike. The rides are incredibly welcoming, very inclusive and beginner riders are really supported and encouraged to take part. The Sunday rides start in Bow and takes participants on a tour of the local Tower Hamlets parks. The main aim of this project is to encourage more women to ride; create positive, local, female cycling role models which are representative of the community; and challenge the cycling stereotypes. This new life in cycling obviously wasn’t enough and I joined Sustrans (a charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle) about 5 months ago, as a Behaviour Change Officer. Now I encourage residents of the LBTH to cycle from the Chrisp Street Community Cycles Hub which is an amazing project that is a ‘one stop shop’ of everything bicycle related.
Q: What are your aspirations and challenges when it comes to your work? Did the pandemic affect your work?
A: The main goal of my roles and aspiration is to make cycling (as a form of active transport) more accessible to everyone regardless of ethnicity or religious belief. A study found that through the pandemic ‘cycling trips made by women in England rose 50%’. However, a challenge was that I felt that this really didn’t apply to the groups that I was working with at the time, as there were so many barriers in place that really needed addressing (I can talk about these issues at length!). I really did feel that they were excluded and missing out. This is what really inspired and propagated my move out of traditional community development into a more cycle specific area of work and the pandemic really was the conduit. Through both these projects, barriers to cycling are significantly reduced for women who would like to cycle. Through ‘Chrisp Street Community Cycles’ anyone can take cycle lessons; they’re also supported to build confidence on the roads or simply, they can borrow a bike. After this initial journey where they’ve learned to cycle (even as a beginner), they can join the weekly led rides with ‘Cycle Sisters’ where they’ll learn about local routes in a supported circle. What’s most rewarding is seeing someone go through that entire journey. For example, I started working with one woman last summer, who just started her cycling journey. She really wanted to join the Cycle Sisters ride, but she found it very difficult to stop when she was cycling. It broke my heart at the time because she was so enthusiastic, but I couldn’t let her join the ride. I supported her to access lessons as well as family rides at Chrisp Street and have seen her go from strength to strength. She’s now bought her own bike and cycles everywhere. She isn’t just a role model, but a beacon for other Muslim women in the borough.
Q: What changes would you like to see in TH?
A: I would love to see so many things happen in the borough (and wider afield). Ideally a more equal and inclusive society; no poverty, homelessness or social exclusion, and just happier, healthier and supportive communities. We are quite a distance away from that, but which London borough isn’t? I think there is a lot of merit in creating 20 minute neighbourhoods, which will (in my opinion) create stronger communities. This idea is based on having everything that you need locally which can be reached with a 20 minute round trip on foot. I feel that this would create localities where people are more present and visible. I know as a woman walking or cycling around London, having a completely quiet street especially in the dark gives me a huge sense of anxiety. Where I can see people I automatically feel safer. For more info have a read of https://www.sustrans.org.uk/our-blog/get-active/2020/in-your-community/what-is-a-20-minute-neighbourhood
Q: What is your message to the women in TH?
A: Cycling is suitable for all women, Muslim, Bangladeshi and Black women too. For me it was a life changing experience that helped my mental well-being during the difficult periods of the pandemic, but it also has other benefits. We have created our own community that is a safe space for women to share their experiences and feel supported. There is an amazing sense of sisterhood that has developed too – why wait? Join now!
If you are isolated and feeling lonely, come join us at Chrisp Street Community Cycles in Chrisp Street Market (opposite the Idea Store). We’re open Mondays and Wednesdays, with 1 Saturday a month. Our first day is this Saturday (12th of February) and you can pop down to have your bike looked at by a mechanic, you can borrow a bike for free (bring photo ID and proof of address) or you can join a learn to cycle session! Everything is free! Look us on social media or https://www.communitycycles.co.uk/
Q: And what is your message to TH council?
A: Tower Hamlets Council has been a huge supporter of cycling in the borough, but I know that women do still say that they feel unsafe when they are out cycling so there are still things that need to be addressed. What I would say is please do keep us in mind and I’m free for a chat!