On Dubai's roads, women hop on Harleys and shatter stereotypes

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Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills in for Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Here's a story now about bikers. Far from the rival motorcycle gangs involved in this weekend's shootout in Waco, Texas, the bikers we're talking about here are in Dubai, and they're women. Amanda Fisher is a reporter based in Dubai.


Amanda Fisher: The more I spend time here, the more I realize how many strong women there are here that kind of defy that clichéd archetype of the oppressed Arab woman. These women exactly represent that they're from all over, they're a real sort of United Nations, and there's women from both Europe and the Arab world and South Asia, and they all sort of come together and that's great to see, especially in Dubai, because people tend to segregate quite a lot given that there's so many expats here. Some of the most interesting stories is, one woman called Danah, that's not her real name, she's Yemeni and obviously Yemen's associated with all kinds of terrible markers in women's rights, but she kind of flies in the face of all of that. She's a really strong woman, but in some sense, she's living a sort of double life because nobody apart from her children and the woman that she rides with know anything about her secret life as a biker chick. She’s used biking as a way to get through personal troubles. She's had a few marital problems. All of the women that I've spoken to have mentioned that biking, for them, is a way of having power and freedom. That's very much the case with Danah. If we just take a listen to a clip of her describing how it feels for her to be on a bicycle.


Danah: Me, I feel like I'm in heaven, because I was really depressed, very sad, very lonely. When I ride, I feel like I own the world.


Hills: She's from Yemen, you said she's had difficulties in her marriage, and the fact that she goes by a pseudonym, she's not telling you her real name suggests she doesn't want everyone to know she's out there on a motorcycle. Describe the scene for us. When these women go biking, are they out there on the road by themselves? How does it work?


Fisher: It's pretty awe-inspiring to be part of. With the Harley gang, there's kind of, contrary to what you might think about biker gangs, they're quite sensible and take road safety seriously. They always have a road crew, and when there's lots of traffic they'll have people corralling the bikes and making sure everything is safe. As you can imagine, these bikes are serious bikes, and they make a lot of noise. While we were driving along, there was actually a couple drivers that popped their smartphones out the window while they were driving the car just to capture some footage. It's not just the bikes, I think it's also the fact these are interesting, powerful, strong women who each individually have very interesting stories to tell.


Hills: Is there kind of a what goes on in Dubai stays in Dubai element to this? These women wouldn't do this back in their home country, would they?


Fisher: It's different for different all of them. There's obviously a lot of Westerners who have ridden overseas and did ride motorcycles back home. Obviously, I mean, there's an Iranian woman who has been riding since, shes' been wanting to ride since she was a little girl, and it wasn't until she got to Dubai when she was 29 that she was finally able to get a motorcycle license because it's illegal for women to ride motorcycles in Iran. This woman has a very interesting story. Her name's Sheema. She told her mom, on the day that she got her motorcycle and she got her license, her mom sort of voiced a bit of disappointment. She was very concerned about Sheema's, and then three years later, so just about one month ago, Sheema got a message from her mom with a photo, and in this photo was her mom at age 18 also on a motorcycle. This was a secret that she had kept from everybody because that was pre-revolution days, and she had only just finally felt comfortable telling Sheema that "hey, when I was 18, I used to do exactly what you're doing now." She told her how proud she was of her for chasing after her dream.


Hills: Dubai is incredibly hot. How do they deal with that, out on the open road?


Fisher: With tenacity. I think it would take a lot, it would take very extreme temperatures to keep them off the roads. Basically as summer comes closer and the temperatures start to soar, they start going for rides earlier and earlier in the morning, so by midsummer they'll be getting up at 4 o'clock and 5o'clock in the morning and riding along for a couple of hours. They do have one novel way to overcome this. One of the women was telling me about a jacket that has a lining in it where you can slip ice into it for a kind of protective layer and that will keep you cool for a couple of hours.


Hills: A little built-in air conditioner there.


Fisher: Yeah, pretty novel.


Hills: Reporter Amanda Fisher in Dubai following the female Harley crowd. Thanks so much, Amanda.


Fisher: Thanks very much, Carol.


Hills: You can see these women taking the open road in Dubai on their Harleys. We've posted some great pictures. They’re all at PRI.org.