‘Adrenaline junkie’ women bikers practice ahead of Saudi driving ban lift

Hanan Abdul Rahman and Tinawi at a training session. Bukaryeva, their instructor, is at right.

Riyadh: As night falls on a deserted motor-sports circuit on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Hanan Abdul Rahman weaves through traffic cones on her black Suzuki motorcycle.

The 31-year-old in a yellow learner’s jacket has one word for what this feels like: “Freedom.”

The scene is new for Saudi Arabia, where, as of June, women will finally be allowed to drive.

REG 180506 SAUDI Hanan Hanan Abdulrahman at the motorcycle training center in Riyadh. Washington Post

Saudi authorities have clarified that women will be permitted to drive motorcycles, vans and trucks in addition to cars.

The decision to lift the driving ban, announced seven months ago, is one of the most prominent moves by the ambitious young crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, as he presses ahead with a much-trumpeted process of modernising the kingdom.

It is a historic step, female activists say.

Out on the track, Abdul Rahman and fellow biker Leen Tinawi, a 19-year-old Jordanian born and raised in Saudi Arabia, are focused on the task at hand.

REG 180506 SAUDI Tinawi99 Leen Tinawi, a Jordanian born and raised in Saudi Arabia, rides a motorcycle at the Bikers Skills Institute in Riyadh. Washington Post

“My friends think I’m crazy,” said Abdul Rahman, a self-described adrenaline junkie and fan of extreme sports.

On weekends, the motor-sports circuit screams with drag racers and drifters getting their fix of petroleum-fueled fun in the car-obsessed country.

But on Wednesday nights, the circuit is the bikers’ domain.

REG 180506 SAUDI Tinawi8 Tinawi attends a motorcycle training session in Riyadh. Washington Post

The two women strap on protective gear over their Harley Davidson T-shirts and jeans before their practice.

For Abdul Rahman, it’s a 125cc “Suzy.”

For Tinawi, it’s a 250cc Honda called “Honey.”

They maneuver through the orange cones and practice U-turns under the floodlights before following their Ukrainian instructor, Elena Bukaryeva, 38, aboard a Harley, out onto the track.

REG 180506 SAUDI 33423 Bukaryeva dons her helmet ahead of a training session at the Bikers Skills Institute. Washington Post

Abdul Rahman learned to drive at age 14, taught off-road by her father in the hopes that one day she would be able to get a license of her own. He was particularly happy at the news that women would finally be allowed to drive.

“It was a week-long party at my house,” Abdul Rahman said.

Women who do not already hold foreign driver’s licenses are required to enroll in training courses.

REG 180506 SAUDI 33 Riding instructor Elena Bukaryeva with her husband, Wael Bin Huraib in Riyadh. Washington Post

At Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, which has one of just five schools offering driving lessons, 20 hours of practical instruction costs about $700.

A woman who can drive but does not have a license is required to take six hours of instruction, the Interior Ministry said.

It said the same rule will be applied to men.

“Everything is going as planned,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Two years ago, the crown prince unveiled “Vision 2030,” a programme that aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy and modernise the country. Mohammad has also pledged to quash religious extremism, which has flourished in the country since the late 1970s.

And some changes have come.

The government withdrew powers of arrest from the religious police, who are mandated to promote virtue and stamp out vice with patrols in public places.

In one Riyadh cafe, groups of men and women sit unsegregated as music plays on the patio – a scene unthinkable just a few years ago.

And this month, the kingdom’s first cinema in 30 years opened, also not segregated.

Some guardianship restrictions have been eased, with a woman supposedly no longer needing permission from a male relative to use many government services, get a job or start a business.


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