Female Motorcyclists Breaking Cultural Taboo In The Middle East


When we think of women in the Middle East, there is this dominant narrative that says they are all oppressed and all look the same. The mainstream media paints a picture of women who can’t get access to education, healthcare or any form of equal human rights. And while there are certainly areas where this is very true, especially in countries and regions torn apart by war and conflict, this isn’t the only story to tell.

In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights are still very much a work in progress and major issues such as driving and voting are yet to happen. But if there is any sign of progress, you should know that in 2013 a law was signed allowing women to ride motorcycles.

They are only allowed to do this in recreational areas, and not ride as a form of everyday transportation. They still need to be accompanied by a male and must be dressed in full head-to-toe abaya. It’s a step forward at least.

Elsewhere in the Middle East are a handful of women using the same mode of transportation to defy social and cultural taboos and proclaim liberation for other women.

A group of women motorcyclists in Iran are getting attention for something pretty revolutionary. They have obtained official government permission to practice on off-road circuits. They aren’t allowed to ride on public roads, or compete in the all-male circuits, but these women believe that will change eventually. Other sports are open to women, however, such as martial arts.


Behnaz Shafiei, 26, is pictured above and told the Guardian when people see her ride and learn she is a woman, they are mostly impressed.

“I’ve never seen a bad reaction to what I do. People here are fascinated when they see a woman doing such a physically demanding sport. Everyone has something affirmative to say. Women wave hands and say well done, you are brave. There are people who can’t believe a woman can ride a motorbike but they’re generally thrilled and feel very proud,” she said.

She started riding at the age of 15 and used to borrow her brother’s bike. She was supported in her passion by her family, especially her mother. Does this attitude surprise you? No doubt when you hear news about Iran, or women in Iran, it’s not always an empowering picture that gets painted by the media. Behnaz wants to change this perception.

“Outside, Iran is depicted differently. We want to change that view. People ask if women are allowed to drive in Iran. Of course they are,” she said.

Behnaz has been lucky enough to practice riding in the United Arab Emirates where women don’t face the same restrictions as in Iran, but she is adamant that she wants to stay in her own country and represent the women in Iran.


In the UAE, specifically Dubai, there is a group of female motorcycle riders who are working to break social taboos when it comes to the global image of Arab women.

New Zealand photographer and journalist Amanda Fisher who is based in Dubai recently shared a fascinating story with PRI about a handful of women she photographed who are part of a badass Harley-Davidson riding group!

Some of these women are from different countries and came to Dubai to take advantage of the freedoms women have there. Amanda told PRI her reaction to seeing what these women are doing.

“I realized how many strong women there are here that defy the cliché archetype of the oppressed Arab woman,” she said.

“The Harley gang is kind of like their extended family. It’s such a melting pot. There are Russians, Polish, Germans, Moroccans, Lebanese,” she added.


In a written piece for the Middle East Eye, Amanda tells the story of two women who originally came from Yemen and Iran and why this motorcycle club is important to them.

Dana Adam (not her real name) left conservative Yemen where she was married with two children, but felt depressed and oppressed. Her husband was unfaithful to her and so Dana decided she needed to make a decision. Since moving to Dubai she says the group of 120 women who ride Harleys have become part of her life and make her feel “alive” and “strong”.

Shima Mehri is from Iran and has a very different story. She moved to Dubai with her husband and after he initially supported her passion and helped her buy a bike, she in turn convinced him to get a motorcycle license. She told Amanda that she feels lucky to have such an open-minded husband.


What was also surprising to Shima was when she told her mother that she was riding a motorcycle, her mother then told her she too rode when she was 18 and sent a photo of her to Shima! To have a mother and husband who supports her is not something we often hear about in regards to women in the Middle East going outside the stereotypical boundaries.

A few years ago the BBC made a documentary about Laleh Seddigh, Iran’s most famous female car race driver, nicknamed “little Schumacher”. She is seen as somewhat of a hero to many other women (including Behnaz Shafiei who we mentioned earlier) in Iran who see her as a beacon of hope when it comes to breaking tradition and changing the perspective on what women are capable of in the country. She is a national champion, and comes from a country that is “full of contradictions and surprises”, according to the BBC description.

In our opinion it is super awesome to see groups of women creating their own narrative, but also busting negative stereotypes that don’t allow us to progress intelligently.

We’re proud to be a platform dedicated to sharing stories of female empowerment that challenge dominant perspectives with an aim to create a more diverse and inclusive world for women.

(photos 3, 4, 5 courtesy of Amanda Fisher).


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