November 20, 2017

Bisklayta: Pedaling through Hurdles in Saudi Arabia

Women of Bisklayta getting ready for a bike ride (Nadeemah Abulaynain)

Nadeemah Abulaynain started riding her bicycle in her Jeddah neighborhood and, through Instagram, slowly attracted other women to join her. In 2015, at 16 years old, she founded Saudi Arabia’s first independently run women’s public cycling group, Bisklayta. Riding bicycles in public became permissible for women in 2013 with one caveat: the presence of a male guardian. In 2013, a spokesperson for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced “Women are free to ride bikes in parks, seafronts, among other areas, providing that they are wearing fully modest dress and a male guardian has to be present in case of falls or accidents.”

While Bisklayta has been celebrated for encouraging women’s cycling in public, it still faces hurdles, both institutional and personal. The group came under investigation for not acquiring a “female-only gym” sports license, despite its ad hoc and outdoor nature. Individual members have come under scrutiny for riding without their male guardians, and have been asked to sign pledges to stop riding their bicycles in public.

AGSIW spoke with Nadeemah about the obstacles Bisklayta has overcome and progress it has made, as well as how the women were able to form this club despite the equivocal environment.

Women getting ready for a bike ride in Jeddah

Women of Bisklayta (Nadeemah Abulaynain)

AGSIW: What inspired you to start Bisklayta?

Nadeemah: I enjoyed riding bicycles as a child and as I grew up this passion grew with me. I was against the idea that once a girl grows up she has to give up outdoor activities she enjoys the most to please society. I started riding my bike alone in our small neighborhood in Jeddah. I then encouraged my sisters and mom to go out and join me and they did. I then said to myself, if I could motivate and encourage women from my own family to try out this fun outdoor activity and not feel self-conscious about it, I must then help other women experience this highly enjoyable experience as well.

AGSIW: How did you publicize Bisklayta? And what age groups and backgrounds of women did you attract?

Nadeemah: I created an Instagram account and called it “Jeddah woman.” There, I would simply post that I am going for a bike ride and then document my trip in pictures; this really got other women excited. I was surprised to get a lot of interaction from ladies who were both very excited about the idea and thrilled to join us. Some asked as they saw pictures of me on the account, “How do you ride a bike in public in Saudi Arabia? This is something that we have yet to see.” Many expressed their willingness to join but were afraid about what people would think. This was in 2015. We’ve now reached the second year since our inception. Once we formed a small group of approximately 10 women, we started riding bikes as a group in designated open spaces for recreational use, which are accessible for everyone to use, both men and women alike.

We were able to attract members from different ages and walks of life. We have stay-at-home mothers, college students, and working women. Practicing sports has no age limit; anyone can participate. I didn’t restrict registration to a specific age, but instead wanted everyone to feel welcome. We, as a team, feel very encouraged when we see older women riding with us. It may be that they felt inclined to join once they saw me with my mom biking together. It has also been nice to see non-Saudi expat women join us in what have become sort of community events. I made a recent online registration questionnaire to see how many women would be interested in joining us and received over 600 responses.

Women riding bikes through Jeddah (Nadeemah Abulaynain)

AGSIW: You used to gather twice a week on Jeddah’s corniche and ride your bicycles in public. How did people react?

Nadeemah: We saw far more support from passersby than negative responses. People would give us thumbs up when we would pass them. Some would cheer, and others would quietly smile. We would simply ignore anyone who would curse; sometimes even fellow women didn’t like seeing us in public riding bikes.

AGSIW: We learned that legal authorities stopped Bisklayta members from riding in public. Why was that?

Nadeemah: We were stopped for not having a license to practice as a group of women in public. After MBC published a report about us we became more visible than before. While increased visibility is good, it drew extra attention from legal authorities to us and this led to our [temporary] ban. We were subject to investigation and other hurdles. There is no law in Saudi Arabia preventing women from riding bicycles, but the issue is that women can only ride bicycles in public with the presence of a male guardian.

Even before that, sometimes when I would go for a bike ride alone on a main street, police officers would stop me and ask that I sign a pledge not to ride a bicycle again without my guardian. Other times, I would come across policemen who wouldn’t react the same way.

AGSIW: When will Bisklayta resume its activities?

Nadeemah: Investigation in our case was concluded and we are now waiting for the sports license to be issued. I recently met with the vice president of the General Sports Authority, Princess Reema al-Saud, and she promised that they are working on approving our license and we should resume our activities shortly.

In the meantime, Bisklayta club members were invited to teach women how to ride bicycles in King Salman’s Social Center in Riyadh as part of a campaign to spread awareness about breast cancer in October. It was heartwarming to see that we are being recognized outside of Jeddah and asked to contribute.

Check out Bisklayta’s Instagram account and fill out this questionnaire if you’re a woman in Saudi Arabia interested in joining.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.