Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most repressive countries in the world, with driving, voting, and many other basic human rights barred from women. Although King Salman recently passed laws that have allowed women more freedom, the patriarchal guardianship system remains alive and well.
Women’s cycling was legalized in 2013, but with many contingencies. Women are only allowed to ride in parks or other recreational areas, and they must have a man present with them at all times. For 25-year-old Baraah Luhaid, cycling has always been an activity that allows her to taste freedom, even when she is yelled at by men through car windows, or stopped because someone has claimed she’s causing offense.
Luhaid grew up cycling in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Upon graduating, she wished to get involved in the cycling industry, but could not find a job at any local bike shops because no one would hire a woman. A cycling trip to China with her feminist brother, one of very few in the country, inspired her to found Saudi Arabia’s first-ever gender-inclusive cycling community and shop, called Spokes Hub.
Spokes Hub began last year at the university Luhaid’s brother attends and advertised itself as a shop exclusively for men. This is due to the fact that opening a women’s cycling center in Saudi Arabia was legally and socially unobtainable. Luhaid was and continues to be barred from her own business, and her brother has to represent Spokes Hub as CEO. With help from her family, she was able to find loopholes that allowed herself and other women to benefit from Spokes Hub. She even offers her services out of the back of a van when necessary.
“Originally, I was confronted with aggression and negativity,” commented Luhaid on how other women received her ideas. Her friends thought it was funny that a woman was pursuing such interests, while her parents were worried what other, more conservative members of their family would think. They also worried about her safety in a society that does not support the self-generated power that Luhaid boasts. The women who were worried about the influence Luhaid would have on other young girls eventually let go of their presuppositions and embraced everything that Luhaid values exemplify.
“I’m standing against something bigger than I originally thought. When I advocate for women’s cycling, I’m advocating for women’s independence. Changing core beliefs requires slow, consistent work. It’s challenging, but someone has to start.”
Spokes Hub is not the only venture she is pursuing. According to the law, women who cycle must be dressed in full Islamic covering, which is typically a long, black robe called an abaya. Abayas easily get caught in the chains of a bike which is why Luhaid has designed a cycling abaya with legs. The idea is patent pending. Through all of her actions, Luhaid wishes to inspire more women to cycle and, essentially, to spur a feminist movement in her oppressed country.
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