A Middle East bikers’ club hits the road for women’s empowerment

The Women Riders World Relay (WRWR) is one of the largest global motorcycle events for female riders. (Supplied)
Updated 14 September 2019

A Middle East bikers’ club hits the road for women’s empowerment

  • Arab motorcyclists turn sisterhood into a support system in a male-dominated sport
  • The Litas Dubai is the first ever chapter of the motorcycle collective in the Middle East

DUBAI: History was made in 2018, when women in Saudi Arabia were permitted to drive for the first time since 1957. As the world watched female motorists across the Kingdom celebrate, a less visible set of women also quietly stepped out of the shadows and revved up their engines. “Women were interested in motorbikes, but they couldn’t
ride openly in Saudi Arabia,” said Zahra AbuAli, founder of social media group Saudi Women Riders and co-founder of The Litas Khobar, a Saudi chapter of the international all-female motorcycle group The Litas.
“It was an underground scene. They used to wear baggy clothes, hide their hair under helmets, and ride at the center of (mixed) groups. Some girls have licenses from Bahrain, some have bikes but no licenses, and some ride with their husbands.”
AbuAli, a 28-year-old Saudi national, learnt to ride a motorbike last year while working in Dubai.
“I just wanted to try something new, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. Cars in Saudi were only a man thing, but that didn’t mean they’re made only for men,” she said.
The horsepower thrill was amplified when the biomedical engineer began to ride her Harley 883 Sportster with Lara Tarabay Saab, founder of The Litas Dubai, the first chapter of the motorcycle collective in the Middle East.
Saab, who is from Lebanon, said that she founded the group to alter perceptions and help female bikers find each other and ride together as a sisterhood.
“My vision is to make our community as women bikers in the Middle East visible to the world. I don’t want them to think of us in stereotypes,” she explained.
The Litas Dubai currently features 10 women from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Palestine, Morocco, Russia and the UAE. The group includes police officers, doctors, artists, engineers, management professionals and mothers.
“Thirteen years ago, if I stood anywhere with my bike, people would come and speak to me in English and be surprised when I answered in Arabic,” Roqayya Abdullateif, 37, said.
The Emirati police officer said that she mastered the handlebars simply by watching her brothers riding bikes. “I saw girls sitting in the back of the bike, and I said why not sit in the front?”
Saab, who initially rode as part of mixed groups in the UAE, said that she also formed the sisterhood as a support system in a male-dominated sport. “Our culture dictates a few things for us. Typical lady behavior wouldn’t be to be on a motorcycle, so it wasn’t easy (for me) at all.
“I was in Italy with my husband, and I wanted to ride a scooter. He said, ‘No, you can’t.’ When I’d ask him to teach me, he’d say ‘It’s very heavy, you can’t even lift it.
“This triggered a lot in me in terms of my sense of existence, freedom of choice and power.”
Saab, a mother of two and a marketing director, now cruises on a Sportster 1200cc, but her journey to this point involved attending 7 a.m. lessons before heading to work.
“I had to come to my husband to sign the form to give me approval … because I’m on his sponsorship,” she said. “He said it’s dangerous and that I should talk to my father first. (But) I said there’s no way I’m not doing this.”
Saab, who also co-founded The Litas Lebanon, is UAE ambassador for the Women’s International Motorcycle Association and Middle East ambassador for the Women Riders World Relay (WRWR).
“We have a lot of women who message us with questions about motorcycles or asking where we learnt to ride,” Saab said. Set to take place in Dubai in 2020, the WRWR is one of the largest global motorcycle events for female riders, created to raise awareness of women across all spheres of motorcycling. The UAE and Oman are the only Middle Eastern states included in the tour of 80 countries, with Dubai marked as the final destination. Saab and her pack are already holding information sessions for the event.
“This is for women’s empowerment because models who pose on bikes are not lady bikers,” she said.

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

Libya journalists caught in the crossfire

Updated 11 min 3 sec ago

Libya journalists caught in the crossfire

  • The attacks since the 2011 ouster of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi have prompted several private television networks established by businessmen and politicians
  • In a push to protect journalists, the LCFP is working on a mobile phone app that would provide reporters with a safe way to document attacks
TRIPOLI: In a country splintered by conflict and propaganda wars, Libya’s journalists are caught in the crossfire between battle fronts and partisan employers, exposing them to risks on the ground.

Fighting that erupted in early April when eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on the capital Tripoli has only exacerbated the cleavages in the country’s already fragmented mediascape.

The battle pits the forces of Tripoli’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) against fighters loyal to Haftar, who backs a parallel administration in eastern Libya.

The rival sides each run their own news agencies and official television channels. And Libya’s private media outlets have dug in too — taking sides and thereby exposing their journalists to potential reprisals.

“Because of the conflict... journalists in Libya can’t do their normal work anymore,” Mohamed Al-Najem, who runs the Libyan Center for Freedom of Press (LCFP), told AFP.

Threats and attacks since the 2011 ouster of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi have prompted several private television networks established by businessmen and politicians in the years immediately after his fall to pull out and transmit from abroad.

Some new outlets have followed suit, broadcasting politically charged content from overseas.

“The (Libyan) media, especially the ones broadcasting from abroad, are largely responsible for the exacerbation of hate speech and incitement to violence,” Najem said.

Those outlets, he added, are “encouraging abuses on the ground, which affect their journalists.” In its latest poll on worldwide press freedoms, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Libya 162 out of 180 countries.

The LCFP has documented 32 attacks on journalists since early April, in what it says marks an increase since Haftar launched his offensive.
“Libyan media is facing an unprecedented crisis,” said RSF’s North Africa head, Souhaieb Khayati.

He said many journalists were, “whether they like it or not,” forced to work with Libya’s warring factions. On July 16, the eastern-based administration backed by Haftar banned 11 TV stations it deemed hostile, accusing them of being “terrorism apologists.”

Pro-Haftar outlets have banned journalists from covering the strongman’s push to take the capital — unlike the GNA, which has opened up the front on its side to dozens of reporters.

“More than 150 foreign journalists have obtained visas since the beginning of the war,” according to the GNA’s foreign press department.

“Our role is limited to authorizations, but journalists are entirely responsible for their own security on the front,” department head Abdelfattah Mhenni told AFP.

Since the fighting kicked off in Tripoli, an AFP cameraman and another from Reuters have been wounded covering clashes.

Their injuries come after the July 2018 abduction and murder of journalist Musa Abdul Karim and the death of photographer Mohammed bin Khalifa in January this year.

Since the beginning of the year, “journalists and other media professionals (in Libya) continued to be subjected to intimidation and arbitrary detention,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a report published in late August.

He said the UN mission in Libya had “reviewed one case of unlawful killing and more than 10 cases of the arbitrary arrest and detention.”

In early May, two journalists from a private anti-Haftar broadcaster were arrested by the strongman’s forces while covering the fighting south of Tripoli.
They were released 23 days later, but only after tribal pressure.

None of the arrested or assaulted journalists agreed to talk to AFP for fear of reprisals against themselves or their families. Many have been forced to change phone number, move, or even flee the country.

In a push to protect journalists, the LCFP is working on a mobile phone app that would provide reporters with a safe way to document attacks.
Presented recently to a group of journalists in Tripoli, the application “Kon Chahed” (Be a witness) is now in its trial phase.

LCFP hopes the app will allow journalists “to report attacks... and warn colleagues who are in the same area.”