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26th September 2017 by Shirin

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Rebels, Angels

Women who ride motorcycles in the UAE are passionate about biking, but there is some confusion about whether Emirati women are entitled to join their ranks.

A young Emirati woman who only wants to be identified as as ZA tried to get a motorcycle licence but was told that this option was only for expatriate women.  She already had a taste of motorcycle riding with quad bikes in the dunes and was keen for more.

"At the beginning, I rode an automatic quad bike in the desert and then I rode a manual Raptor quad bike which was amazing fun," she says. "It's not easy to ride and change the gears but I was getting used to it."

ZA learnt [sic] more about motorcycles through her involvement with the UAE's women's Auto Racing Club. "When I joined WARC, they organised mechanical bike classes only for girls so I attended the theory classes after which they took us to a garage and did some practical work," she recalls. "The club had planned to arrange some special bike training classes but that didn't go through - after that, learning how to ride a motorbike and getting the licence always felt like unfinished business."

However, a spokeswoman for the Dubai Roads and Traffic Authority says women of all nationalities can obtain motorcycle licences as long as they have the same No Objection Certificate and permission from their sponsor, as required for car licences, and instructors cannot refuse to teach women to ride motorcycles.  This is also the case in Abu Dhabi.

Instead of pursuing a UAE motorcycle licence, ZA obtained a licence in Bahrain, where she has been working. "After I moved to Bahrain I was lucky.  My colleague helped me as she and her husband are both bikers who ride with the Harley HOGs Bahrain Chapter."

ZA's Harley-riding colleague is Julie Hill, a South African who obtained her Bahraini motorcycle licence after spending 15 years as a pillion passenger. "The main attraction is the 'me-time' that I have when I'm on the bike," says Hill of her love of riding.

"There is no special process for a woman to get a bike licence in Bahrain" ZA explains. "You only have to be above 18 years of age with valid residency documents.  For any licence in Bahrain, you have to attend an hour-long lecture that explains the traffic history of Bahrain plus everything about roads and signs."

To obtain a Bahraini licence, there are five compulsory days of training plus extra classes until the potectial biker is deemed ready for the road test. Now ZA is looking to purchase her first bike and is now interested in obtaining a UAE bike licence.  She says her dream is a Harley VRSC Night Rod and her ultimate motorcycling ambition is to ride in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

However, in Sharjah, women, regardless of nationality, cannot get motorcycle licences.  Sabah Mukri, an Indian expat who has lived in the UAE for most of her life, ended up waiting seven years before she was able to get her motorcycle licence. She was not able to get her licence in Sharjah when she turned 18 as she was still on her father's visa.

"I got a job in Dubai and goit a Dubai visa and onlu then did I get my bike licence, in August 2008 when I was 25," she says.  Mukri is now the proud owner of a black Kawasaki 250 Ninja sports bike.

The Abu Dhabi Exiles club has around 30 per cent female membership and it is the safe riding environment the group provides that appeals to these women. "It's a family, we look after each other just like a family," says Ellen de Quiroz, a Filipino expat, who rides as a pillion passenger in the club or drives a support car on group rides. "I feel like I am the mum of the club."

"We always ride out as a group, we follow the road rules," says Yrie Schutte, a South African who rides a Honda Shadow.

"There is always someone watching you when you ride with the club," says Olivia Middleton, who obtained her motorcycle licence in the UK last year and is now bike-shopping in Abu Dhabi.  "The club has Bluetooth headsets so the leaders can warn each other of dangers, we have the captain riding at the front and a sweeper at the back and we ride in staggered formation."

Minna Backanda, a Finnish expat who rides a Sportster 1200 appreciates the safe environment of the club's rides.  "We don't go out to speed, we ride to enjoy ourselves and just cruise." she says.  "If you are new, you can ride next to the club captain up the front."

The club's charity activities are just as important to the women as the rides.  "On our last charity ride we raised Dh 10,000 to donate to a charity for children with special needs and we do toy runs as well where we visit children's wards with toys for the in-patients." says de Quiroz.

The women agree that motorcycle riding in the middle east can be a hair-raising activity.  "Unfortunately drivers in the middle east are not very bike-aware, and the onus is on us as bikers to anticipate the worst, and stay out of danger," says Hill.  "I'd say the worst trait is drivers getting too close to bikers - they even try to squeeze next to us in the same lane, or try to overtake in corners."

"When I got my bike licence here, I was told to be careful because the drivers don't care," says Schutte "But why aren't the drivers told to be careful of bike riders?"

Despite this, Mukri and Geni Cabre, who hails from Barcelona but obtained a UK bike licence before moving to Dubai two months ago, both use their motorcycles as their primary mode of transport.

"I brought my bike here from the UK and I haven't got a car so I ride to work every day." says Cabre of her Kawasaki sports bike.

"I live in Arabian Ranches and work as an equestrian instructor out near Bab Al Shams so it's a lovely ride every day," Mukri says "It's not as bad on the roads here as people say - they should see India's roads."

Cabre agrees: "I never feel scared on the roads here and the good things about a bike is that it is light and I can move out of the way faster than a car."

Veronika Haver, a Lithuanian expat who got her licence at the encouragement of her husbane in 2006 and rides a Harley Davidson V-Rod and Kawasaki XR6, enjoys riding on the roads and tracks but says the licencing system did not prepare her for bigger bikes.  "When I passed my test, I only had to ride a tiny 100cc bike and as soon as I passed the test, I started riding a 1,200cc Buell." she recalls.

The attention of male drivers can be a problem as well, according to Schutte. "First they see a group of bikes so they look when they should be looking at the road and then when they see there are ladies, they get too close to the bikes and they don't realise it's dangerous." she says.

Getting involved in an organised motorcycle scene also means the women can become "one of the boys", according to Cabre. "When I ride out with a group of men, I end up hearing all about their problems with their wives and girlfriends."

"If I go on a camping trip, wives and girlfriends can sometimes get jealous so I offer to introduce myself to them so that know me and know that I just want to ride motorbikes and I'm not interested in their husbands," adds Cabre, who describes her motorcycle as her "boyfriend substitute".

"I've always been one of the boys," says Haver, "Some men may want to go out on rides to get away from wives and girlfriends but for my husband and I, it is something we can do together and I know a lot of wives who either ride with their husbands or on the back of their bikes."

But the one factor that unites all the women riders The National spoke to is a love of the freedom that comes with hitting the road on two wheels rather than four.

"Freedom, it's all about freedom." says Backanda. "When you're on the road nothing else matters."

"It's the best way to forget your worries and stresses." says Mukri.

"I'm addicted to motorbikes because of the adrenaline rush," says Cabre. "When I didn't have my bike here, I got withdrawal symptoms like a smoker giving up cigarettes."

Georgia Lewis
The National,