Instant Quantum Bitcore Surge

‘We do it for the joy’: Women on Wheels

A 1000 Better Stories blog written by Clare Harris, Scotland lead for the Local Story Exchange

Women on Wheels founder, Shgufta Anwar, the local cycling pioneer who’s battled family disapproval to bring two-wheeled travel to over 900 Glasgow women tells more about how her faith has inspired her journey – and what she hopes for as politicians juggle climate ambition with reality on the ground.

A scientist and marketeer by training, Shgufta Anwar (45), started her career working at General Motors. Mother to two teenage daughters, she’s forged her own path as founder of the charity Women on Wheels, and these days spends her time encouraging women to ditch the car and get on their bikes. Based on Dixon Road, the charity is well-known in Govanhill and beyond. We spoke to Shgufta about how her faith has inspired her journey – and what she hopes for as politicians juggle climate ambition with reality on the ground.

Faith, climate and two-wheeled transport: an awakening

‘I’d been living in London but moved home to Scotland when I had my two kids,’ says Shgufta. ‘I was looking for something that fitted alongside my career – I started working as a climate change project manager at a Muslim women’s charity Al Meezan, which is on the south side of Glasgow.

‘We did food workshops and composting and food growing, sustainable transport, energy, upcycling, recycling – all sorts of things. I’m quite a spiritual person. And I came to realise that my faith and climate change were one and the same. And that was a pivotal changing point for me, like I completely changed my life from that. 

‘One of my mentors used to call me an eco-warrior. It was a book called ‘199 ways to please God’ that changed my life. It’s by a Muslim writer, Rianne ten Veen, who’s an environmentalist. It was about how climate change is the problem with the world, this is what our Faith says about and this is what we need to do about it. And I was just like, I’ve been studying my faith my whole life. How did I not know this? Like, how did I miss it? It was life affirming.’

Of all the activities Anwar enjoyed at Al Meezan, it was cycling that really stuck. Despite a lack of understanding from those closest to her – who still don’t quite see what she does as a ‘real job’ – Anwar began work at a Glasgow cycling charity and began to specialise in projects aimed at women. ‘I thought, this is where I really want to be.’ 

She knew that there was a gap for a charity that focused solely on women – and she couldn’t let go of it. ‘One November night, I couldn’t sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and I prayed. I found one of my daughter’s old school jotters, and between 2am and 7am I had filled it with notes about funders, logos, potential venues, the people I was going to work with, strategy and a comms plan. By December we’d submitted our company papers. By January, we were working on our business plan. And by February, we were set up as a SCIO and on International Women’s Day in March 2021, we launched Women on Wheels digitally.’

Cycling, women, and ways into change

Why did Anwar feel that there was a need for a women-only cycling charity? ‘Women have so many barriers,’ she says, ‘and sometimes they don’t even realise it. The women’s project I was involved in at my previous job worked with 150 women in the first year. That was really successful. But the real eye opener for me was when we had maintenance classes. In a couple of years of regular maintenance classes, we saw one woman. When we launched the women and non-binary maintenance classes, a dozen women came, and then consistently between half a dozen, a dozen women. And that’s when it really opened up to me that when you give women a space – where it’s people that look like them, that sound like them, that understand them, they’re a lot more comfortable coming in.’

‘The number one reason women give me for not cycling is road safety. Number two is confidence. And number three is financial barriers. There are religious barriers, there are cultural barriers there, they’re the primary carers a lot of the time, they may be caring for adults, as well as children, they’re maybe doing a school run or a nursery run and then going to then going to work in the picking up groceries.

‘Women tend to approach cycling from a family angle. But what I like is when I see women who come here and find space just to cycle for themselves. I’ve seen such joy.’

Building on momentum

Women on Wheels now employs three part-time staff, including Anwar herself, and is supported by a board of five women, around 20 sessional staff and 30 volunteers. In the 22 months it has been running, over 900 women have come through its doors. So, what’s next?

‘I have a very, very clear strategy – the first year we wanted to work with women. We could have launched with kids straight away, but I didn’t want to because women prioritise kids before they prioritise themselves. We wanted to prioritise women first. So, the first year was women, second year was families. The third year, which is what will be the beginning of this year, is a teen programme.’

Anwar’s two daughters are 13 and 14. And while they’re more into the latest hairstyles than cycling, she recognises the need for a space that’s welcoming for teens and younger women, too. She’s hoping to expand the team of four to bring on board a Teens Activities Coordinator. Details can be found here. She’s also keen to work with local businesses.

The bigger picture: local and national infrastructure

There has been much investment in cycling and active travel in Scotland’s biggest city recently – with the South City Way cycle path running not far from Women on Wheels HQ in Govanhill. The Scottish Government has stated that it’s committed to active travel becoming the primary form of transport for shorter journeys by 2030. As the Women on Wheels story continues, what would Anwar ask of local – and national – politicians? 

‘We know there’s a general election coming up this year, and funding priorities can change, sometimes overnight. We want to keep cycling on their agenda, as well as the issues that impact cyclists. We’ve just cycled across the city from south to north and we’ve seen how shocking some of infrastructure can be. Bits of the cycle-way are broken, or closed, and you’re forever coming on and off it. So, the infrastructure needs to be looked at. 

‘The budget for active travel this year is something like £330 million, it’s the biggest it’s ever been. And it’s actually the biggest out of the four nations that make up Great Britain. But a lot of that’s going to infrastructure, and infrastructure is very cash intensive. That doesn’t necessarily create new cyclists.’ Anwar believes that changing the way people live goes hand in hand with infrastructure; and that investment must continue to flow to both.

‘I asked our former First Minister, when he was a transport minister, how do you travel? And he told me that he did so much travelling, he had to be chauffeur driven. And he got a lot of his work done like this. But they need to make change themselves.’

Anwar’s journey with Women on Wheels is only just beginning. Long term, she’d like to work within community organisations across Scotland to get more women cycling across the country. Her own path started with an epiphany on climate change, and the realisation that active travel is key element of tackling it. Is the climate a big driver for the women who come through her doors? ‘No, it’s not. For a lot of women, cycling is something they’ve always wanted to do. They’ve seen us around, and they’ve seen us on our bikes, and they’ve seen how happy we are. They just want to be part of that joy.’

About the Author: Clare Harris

Local Story Exchange, Scotland Lead

Clare has extensive experience in journalism, publishing and communications in Scotland’s third and cultural sectors. Most recently she has developed award-winning content across a range of channels for leading conservation organisations.