Saudi women, free to drive, kickstart Harley-Davidson bike chapter

In a bit more than a month since women in Saudi Arabia won the historic right to drive, a group of them is headed out on the road on not four wheels, but two. 

“We have been waiting a lifetime for this,” said Aliya, an enthusiastic 23-year-old student from Jeddah who is set on motorcycling. “Always watching my brothers ride. Now they’re teaching me.”

Saudi Harley REUTERS

 (REUTERS)

Five young women swathed in their mandatory black abayas meander excitedly through the Harley-Davidson store in the country’s capital of Riyadh, examining the line of classic motorcycles and skimpy Harley branded t-shirts – a concept that would have been unthinkable less than a year ago.

It is a welcome sight for all the all-male staff at the prominent motorcycle store, who say they can’t wait to see women revving and rolling through the Riyadh streets.

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 (REUTERS)

“This is for sure going to be growing, we already have had a large number of ladies asking about the training and asking to get a bike,” said Marwan Al-Mutlaq, trading manager at the Harley-Davidson Saudi flagship. “And we have already established the ‘Ladies of Harley’ Riyadh chapter, so they can go on their own group rides too.”

The chapter opened with eight founding female members - but they anticipate that number will soon burgeon. In preparation, the store has acquired a selection of protective gear and female-specific clothes, along with marketing posters featuring women alongside men on motorcycles, resembling any such retail location one might see in the West.

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Marketing materials featuring women adorn the walls of the Harley Davidson dealership in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia  (Hollie McKay )

“We have the basic gear for women - armored jackets, helmets, gloves, boots and accessories,” Al-Mutlaq added. “But we expect there will be a growing interest, and we will get a bigger range as more women learn to ride. The most important thing for now, is women learning to ride.”

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Harley Davidson clothing for women in Saudi Arabia  (Fox News/Hollie McKay)

Saudi women are slowly amassing those needed motorcycle skills through weekly gatherings at the Bikers Skills Institute. Set inside a racetrack on the periphery of the capital city center, and under the instruction of an experienced rider originally from the Ukraine, an all-female riding class convenes on Wednesday nights.

Dressed in their safety vests and form-fitting jeans, the women practice everything from gear shifts to quick stops, cone-weaving and U-turns, in a comprehensive program that costs around $400.

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Women's riding gear is expected to increase in coming months as more women learn to ride in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia  (Fox News/Hollie McKay )

The ladies' motorcycle lessons started in February in the buildup for the new measure, and has attracted modest groups of eager females. Meanwhile, other women riders told Fox News they have already acquired their two-wheeling skills in the West, or in neighboring Arab countries like Bahrain, Dubai and Jordan.

“Most men are actually excited to see a woman driving here, and riding a motorcycle is the next step,” noted Harley’s male riding trainer, Mohammed, emphasizing they have an “assimilation” booth set up in-store where women are welcome to explore.

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Male staff and trainers at Riyadh's Harley Davidson dealership show full support of their female counterparts driving and riding  (Fox News/Hollie McKay )

The lifting of the female driving prohibition, announced in September last year and implemented on June 24, is part of a sweeping litany of reforms by the ambitious young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam, designed to bring the genders closer to equality - and squash the nation’s undercurrent of religious extremism.

Some of the initial euphoria of the new-found freedom was eclipsed by a swell of arrests of women activists who had long lobbied to lift the draconian driving ban just prior to it coming into effect. And even though the Kingdom’s females are finally inching closer to finding their freedom behind the wheel – or the throttle – several roadblocks still stand in the way.

Women remain bound by guardianship laws requiring male permission to obtain a license. And the standard dress code of a long flowing abaya is both impractical and inherently dangerous for motorcycle riding. 

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 (Fox News/Hollie McKay )

But for now, the young men of Riyadh’s Harley store say it’s only a matter of time before all the kinks are ironed out.

“I will support women to ride in any way I can. I’m supporting my girl, she has already done the training and is constantly practicing and taking courses to get better,” Al-Mutlaq boasted of his 19-year-old girlfriend. “She wants an aggressive bike – she is planning on getting the Fat Boy.”

 

Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay