As Saudi Arabia prepares to lift the ban on women driving on June 24, some women are learning to ride motorbikes.
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Published: Wed 13 Jun 2018, 7:20 AM
Last updated: Wed 13 Jun 2018, 10:50 AM
Even a year ago, it would have been hard to imagine - Saudi women clad in 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. Overturning the world's only ban on female drivers, long a symbol of repression against women, is the most striking reform yet launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"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 adrenaline-fueled passion, but also a form of empowerment. "I can summarise the whole experience of riding a bike in one word - freedom," Tinawi said. 'It's your turn to ride' 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. She echoed a catchphrase printed on the institute's promotional material: "It's your turn to ride." Asked why more women had not enrolled for the course, which costs 1,500 riyals ($400), Bukaryeva said: "Maybe their families stop them." Tinawi echoed the sentiment, saying she faced strong reservations from her family. "My parents said: 'You on a bike? You are a girl. It's dangerous,'" she told AFP. In Saudi Arabia, taking the wheel has long been a man's prerogative. 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. "Expect more accidents" because of women is a common refrain in an avalanche of sexist comments on Twitter. The government has preemptively addressed concerns of abuse by outlawing sexual harassment with a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 riyals. 'Climate of fear' The most immediate practical worry for female motorists is the dress code. Inside the private institute, the bikers wear skinny jeans, with abrasion-proof knee pads wrapped outside - but that is still unthinkable in public. Abaya robes are impractical while riding as their flowing hems could get caught up in the wheels. Many women also complain that female instructors are in short supply and that classes are expensive. Back at the institute, as the floodlights dimmed and the women bikers donned their abayas to leave, the crackdown was not a topic of discussion. "A climate of fear is now evident in Saudi Arabia," Hadid said.