Riyadh: Even a year ago, it would have been hard to imagine — Saudi women clad in 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 kingdom.
Overturning the world’s only ban on female drivers is the most striking reform yet launched by Crown Prince Mohammad 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 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.
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, 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 said.
In Saudi Arabia, taking the wheel has long been a man’s prerogative.
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.
“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.
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.
Body-shrouding abaya robes — mandatory public wear for women — 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.