Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s most repressive countries for women where a man’s consent is obligatory for women to access human rights and feminist activists risk arrest. Although with the coming of King Salman and his son Crown Prince Salman, the Kingdom has accepted some changes like encouraging women to work, loosening grip on male guardianship and recently passing a law allowing women to drive. Last year, twenty-five-year old Baraah Luhaid founded Saudi Arabia’s first gender-inclusive cycling community!
An Empowering Cycling Community
As a cycling lover, Baraah Luhaid, strives to get women to fight for their rights and her tool is cycling. Only last year, Luhaid founded the very first gender-inclusive cycling community and business, ‘Spokes Hub’ in Saudi Arabia. It is the only running cycling shop with a cafe and workshops that also caters to women.
Women’s cycling in Saudi Arabia was legalised in 2013, yet only allowed in parks or on beaches and in the presence of a male guardian. Luhaid considers Sue Macy’s book ‘Wheels of Change’ her inspiration source; a book which draws the significance of cycling as a prominent role in women’s rights movement.
Spokes Hub has recently won a kingdom-wide prize for start-ups while Princess Reema – deputy president of Saudi Arabia’s Women’s Sports Authority – has publicly endorsed the project.
Overcoming Cultural Barriers
After graduation, Luhaid wanted to work in a bike shop but no one wanted to hire a woman. After a cycling trip to China, she returned with a determination to pursue her dreams. She knew it was not easy. The cultural barriers set up by the people surrounding her were most challenging. “When I started cycling, my best friends said: ‘Baraah, if we see you, we’re going to Snapchat you, and we’re going to laugh – you’re a girl, you’re not supposed to do this.’,” Luhaid says. “Last week I was stopped because someone complained I was causing offense.”
Apart from her sister and brother – “one of very few male Saudi feminists” –, her family have been cautious. “My parents have a different mentality, and were worried about how the more conservative family would react,” Luhaid explains. Her dream is for all Saudi women to cycle freely, but she must tread carefully. “Originally, I was confronted with aggression and negativity.” Some women feared she would lead their daughters astray.
An Exemplary Women’s Rights Activist
Baraah Luhaid clearly had to struggle to realise her dream. Since opening a women’s cycling centre was not possible, both legally and socially, Spokes Hub originally catered exclusively for men being initially represented by her brother. Even now, the start-up remains located at her brother’s university. Steadily, she founded workarounds to include women and girls. In addition, Luhaid has designed a cycling abaya with legs, which is about to be patented.
There have been small steps for women’s rights in the deeply conservative and repressive culture in recent years. As such, Saudi Arabia sent a woman athlete to the Olympics in 2011, granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015 while also appointing 30 women to the previously all male Shura Council, a formal advisory committee in Saudi Arabia.
Baraah Luhaid has set an example for women worldwide and serves as an inspiration for all of us. “I’m standing for something bigger than I originally thought,” says Luhaid. “When I advocate for women’s cycling, I’m advocating for women’s independence. Changing core beliefs requires slow, consistent work,” she adds. “It’s challenging, but someone has to start!”
This article is written by Haya Wakil.