Sunday, Nov 18, 2018 | Last Update : 03:07 AM IST

Saudi women rev up motorbikes as end to driving ban nears

AFP | ANUJ CHOPRA
Published : Jun 13, 2018, 1:20 am IST
Updated : Jun 13, 2018, 1:20 am IST

For both women, biking is not just an adrenalin-fuelled passion, but also a form of empowerment.

The most immediate worry for female motorists is the dress code which conflicts with the norm. (Photo: AFP)
 The most immediate worry for female motorists is the dress code which conflicts with the norm. (Photo: AFP)

Riyadh: Even a year ago, it would have been hard to imagine — Saudi women clad in skinny jeans and Harley-Davidson T-shirts, revving motorbikes at a Riyadh sports circuit.

But ahead of the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers on June 24, women gather weekly at the privately owned Bikers Skills Institute, to learn how to ride bikes.

“Biking has been a passion ever since I was a kid,” said 31-year-old Noura, who declined to give her real name as she weighs public reactions in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom.

Overturning the world’s only ban on female drivers, long a symbol of repression against women, is the most striking reform yet launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But it has been overshadowed by a wave of arrests of female activists — including veteran campaigners who long resisted the ban.

“I grew up watching my family riding bikes,” Noura told AFP as she mounted a Yamaha Virago. “Now I hope... To have enough skills to ride on the street.”

Next to her, revving a Suzuki, sat Leen Tinawi, a 19-year-old Saudi-born Jordanian.

For both women, biking is not just an adrenalin-fuelled passion, but also a form of empowerment.

“I can summarise the whole experience of riding a bike in one word — freedom,” Tinawi said.

Both bikers follow their Ukrainian instructor, 39-year-old Elena Bukaryeva, who rides a Harley-Davidson.

Most days the circuit is the domain of drag racers and bike enthusiasts — all men.

But since offering courses to women in February on the basics of bike riding, four female enthusiasts have enrolled, most of them Saudis, Bukaryeva said.

“They always wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle. And now they are saying ‘it’s my time’,” Bukaryeva told AFP. Asked why more women had not enrolled for the course, which costs 1,500 riyals ($400, 340 euros), Bukaryeva said: “Maybe their families stop them.”

Tinawi echoed the sentiment, saying she faced strong reservations from her family.

For decades, hardliners cited austere interpretations of Islam as they sought to justify the ban, with many asserting that allowing them to drive would promote promiscuity.

Many women fear they are still easy prey for conservatives in a nation where male “guardians” — their fathers, husbands or other relatives — can exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on their behalf.

Tags: harley-davidson, saudi women