The Saudi port city of Jeddah, on the Red Sea, is the kind of place from which social revolutions erupt. Not the kind that topple regimes, change constitutions, or establish liberal governments offering equal rights to women. But what young Saudis can do in Jeddah is more than they are allowed to do in cities like Riyadh or Mecca.
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The latest demonstration of female daring took place there last week, when a group of young Saudi women took to the streets on bicycles, dressed in long robes and hijabs (with bike helmets on top). They even uploaded pictures of themselves to the internet. The group’s leader, Nadima Abu El-Einein, announced her intention to found a professional group and register it with the local Cyclists’ Association, where membership is limited to men only.
Abu El-Einein actually founded her group about 18 months ago, but limited its activities to quiet alleys, in order to avoid stoking public outrage. While Saudi law doesn’t forbid women from cycling, society is stronger than the law.
Initial reactions weren’t particularly encouraging. But Abu El-Einein spread her innovative idea online and women recently started joining from other Saudi cities. It seems the new craze is gaining momentum and that men in the kingdom will have to come to terms with it – despite conservative religious scholars going crazy and trying to stop what they see as an abomination.
In 2012, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour made the award-winning movie “Wadjda,” about the titular 10-year-old girl who dreams of owning her own bike. She participates in a Koran recitation contest at her school, diligently learning texts that previously hadn’t interested her, in the hope of winning enough money to buy a bike. She also saves up money by selling hand-braided bracelets to her classmates and taking money for setting up a forbidden liaison between a boy and one of her girlfriends. SPOILER: Wadjda wins the contest, but when she announces her intention to use the prize money to buy a bike, the school donates her prize money to Palestine instead, leaving the girl totally stunned. However, it turns out she doesn’t actually need the prize money because her mother, who supported her all along, surprises her by buying her the bike.
The film quickly became a symbol of the struggle for freedom and equality in a country that forbids women from driving.
“Wadjda” likely influenced young Saudi girls. Likewise the artist Marina Jaber – who began cycling through the streets of Baghdad late last year. She said in an interview with the Alhurra TV network that people insulted and cursed her during her rides, and one time even tried to push her off her bike as she was cycling. But she was not deterred; Jaber continues to ride her red bike.
Unlike her Saudi sisters, she wears jeans and no headscarf. “I saw over time that the male criticism waned, and I realized that the repeated use of the bicycle was an effective weapon,” Jaber noted.
But like Abu El-Einein, she had to contend with another controversy last month when a picture of a Saudi woman named Khulood, walking around a historical site wearing a miniskirt and no head covering, went viral on social media. The religious police were called in. The public erupted. But ultimately she was not indicted, since she claimed she was a model wearing the clothes for a photo shoot. A model? In Saudi Arabia? It seems that even in this area the last word has yet to be written.
Still, it’s worth noting the Saudi Education Ministry’s decision to include sport lessons for females, starting in the coming school year. The decision, originally made in 2014, has yet to be implemented. Sports halls for women are set to be built next year and the construction of a municipal sports center for women in the city of Ta’if – which will include a shopping complex – is to commence in coming months.
It seems these initiatives were awaiting the appointment of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Bin Sultan, deputy head of the Saudi sports authority for women. Her father is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, and later served as secretary-general of the National Security Council. King Salman fired him in 2015 (as well as others who served under King Abdullah). However, Reema forged her own flourishing career. She was CEO of luxury retailer Alfa International and made the Forbes list of the 200 most powerful Arab women in 2014 (at #31). She is also a member of the TEDx Council, as well as part of Uber’s public policy advisory group. She is extremely active in social issues. She founded a nonprofit for developing professional human resources in the kingdom and launched a campaign to raise women’s awareness of breast cancer.
It seems that the bold biker Nadima Abu El-Einein will have someone to watch her back when she wants to establish her professional team, since Princess Reema is the one who founded the Saudi women’s professional basketball team.