A Middle East bikers’ club hits the road for women’s empowerment

The Women Riders World Relay (WRWR) is one of the largest global motorcycle events for female riders. (Supplied)
Updated 14 September 2019

A Middle East bikers’ club hits the road for women’s empowerment

  • Arab motorcyclists turn sisterhood into a support system in a male-dominated sport
  • The Litas Dubai is the first ever chapter of the motorcycle collective in the Middle East

DUBAI: History was made in 2018, when women in Saudi Arabia were permitted to drive for the first time since 1957. As the world watched female motorists across the Kingdom celebrate, a less visible set of women also quietly stepped out of the shadows and revved up their engines. “Women were interested in motorbikes, but they couldn’t
ride openly in Saudi Arabia,” said Zahra AbuAli, founder of social media group Saudi Women Riders and co-founder of The Litas Khobar, a Saudi chapter of the international all-female motorcycle group The Litas.
“It was an underground scene. They used to wear baggy clothes, hide their hair under helmets, and ride at the center of (mixed) groups. Some girls have licenses from Bahrain, some have bikes but no licenses, and some ride with their husbands.”
AbuAli, a 28-year-old Saudi national, learnt to ride a motorbike last year while working in Dubai.
“I just wanted to try something new, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. Cars in Saudi were only a man thing, but that didn’t mean they’re made only for men,” she said.
The horsepower thrill was amplified when the biomedical engineer began to ride her Harley 883 Sportster with Lara Tarabay Saab, founder of The Litas Dubai, the first chapter of the motorcycle collective in the Middle East.
Saab, who is from Lebanon, said that she founded the group to alter perceptions and help female bikers find each other and ride together as a sisterhood.
“My vision is to make our community as women bikers in the Middle East visible to the world. I don’t want them to think of us in stereotypes,” she explained.
The Litas Dubai currently features 10 women from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Palestine, Morocco, Russia and the UAE. The group includes police officers, doctors, artists, engineers, management professionals and mothers.
“Thirteen years ago, if I stood anywhere with my bike, people would come and speak to me in English and be surprised when I answered in Arabic,” Roqayya Abdullateif, 37, said.
The Emirati police officer said that she mastered the handlebars simply by watching her brothers riding bikes. “I saw girls sitting in the back of the bike, and I said why not sit in the front?”
Saab, who initially rode as part of mixed groups in the UAE, said that she also formed the sisterhood as a support system in a male-dominated sport. “Our culture dictates a few things for us. Typical lady behavior wouldn’t be to be on a motorcycle, so it wasn’t easy (for me) at all.
“I was in Italy with my husband, and I wanted to ride a scooter. He said, ‘No, you can’t.’ When I’d ask him to teach me, he’d say ‘It’s very heavy, you can’t even lift it.
“This triggered a lot in me in terms of my sense of existence, freedom of choice and power.”
Saab, a mother of two and a marketing director, now cruises on a Sportster 1200cc, but her journey to this point involved attending 7 a.m. lessons before heading to work.
“I had to come to my husband to sign the form to give me approval … because I’m on his sponsorship,” she said. “He said it’s dangerous and that I should talk to my father first. (But) I said there’s no way I’m not doing this.”
Saab, who also co-founded The Litas Lebanon, is UAE ambassador for the Women’s International Motorcycle Association and Middle East ambassador for the Women Riders World Relay (WRWR).
“We have a lot of women who message us with questions about motorcycles or asking where we learnt to ride,” Saab said. Set to take place in Dubai in 2020, the WRWR is one of the largest global motorcycle events for female riders, created to raise awareness of women across all spheres of motorcycling. The UAE and Oman are the only Middle Eastern states included in the tour of 80 countries, with Dubai marked as the final destination. Saab and her pack are already holding information sessions for the event.
“This is for women’s empowerment because models who pose on bikes are not lady bikers,” she said.


This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


How tepid response to US Census 2020 hurts Arab Americans

Updated 04 August 2020

How tepid response to US Census 2020 hurts Arab Americans

  • Community’s share of $675 billion annual funding resource at risk due to community indifference in some places
  • The consequences of failure to fill out the form include not just potential loss of funding but also lack of recognition

CHICAGO: Nearly half of Arab communities in the US are lagging in responding to the 2020 Census, a trend that could jeopardize their share of a $675 billion annual funding resource, according to US Census Bureau officials.

Michael Cook, the chief public spokesman for US Census 2020, said he is optimistic that the situation will change. Efforts are being made to connect with members of all communities —including, and especially, Arab Americans and others whose origins can be traced to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) — and encourage them to complete the questionnaires.

Attempts in the past four decades by Arab Americans to have “Arab” or “MENA” included as an option for race on census forms, to encourage greater participation, have failed. As a result, Arabs continue to fall under the “white” category. Cook said the consequences of failure to fill out the form include a potential loss of funding and lack of recognition.

The overall response rate so far across the US is 62 percent, meaning that 38 percent of the population has yet to complete the census. The rate among Arab Americans in many regions is good, but it has been poor in others.

“If you look at all of the areas of the country in which people of the MENA community are prevalent, that response rate is actually north of the national response rate, in the 70th percentile,” said Cook.

“We are excited about that response but we know that, as good stewards of taxpayer dollars, we want to give everybody the word and encouragement to continue to respond.”

Places where the census response rate among Arab American and MENA populations are below the national average include major cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

A push is also needed in locations such as Hamtramck and Flint in Michigan; Jersey City, Patterson and Bayonne in New Jersey; Houston, Dallas and Irving in Texas; and almost every major city in Florida, including Orlando, Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach.

However, the response in others places, such as Chicago, has been more encouraging.

“When you look at the MENA community, we know which suburbs of major markets have tended to house (Arab/MENA) communities in the past,” Cook said. “This impacts political representation. It impacts the federal funding — $675 billion every year — going down to the local level for much-needed social services.”

He added that the Census Bureau is continuing its outreach efforts in Arab American and MENA communities. It is hiring people from those communities to conduct follow-up activities to encourage people to complete the forms. It is also partnering with key Arab American organizations to ensure the message reaches as many people as possible.

Imad Hamad, director of the American Human Rights Council in Dearborn, Michigan, is one of those “official partners” working closely with the 2020 Census campaign. He said Arab Americans have a history of concerns about being excluded from census designations.

The US Census logo appears on census materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online (Getty Images)

While many ethnic and national groups are identified in the 2020 Census, encouraging their participation, efforts to have “Arab” or “MENA” include as official categories have been persistently rebuffed. There are other concerns, too, as a consequence of which, Hamad said, the Census Bureau has connected with some Arab groups but not the wider community.

“The census has not been comprehensive and fully inclusive regarding the allocation of funds and resources,” he said. “Most funds were provided to a select few, neglecting the grass-root organizations that matter and which have the influence to compel people to participate. It smacked of a selective approach determined by political connections and power.”

Even within the Arab American community there is some disagreement about whether “Arab” should be included as an option on the census.

A poster advertising the 2020 Census in Arabic is seen in Los Angeles on February 27, 2020. (Photo by Chris Delmas / AFP)

“Some Arab Americans resist the designation ‘Arab’ as a separate category from ‘white’ on the US census form because they don’t consider themselves a minority,” said Hamad.

“However, Arab Americans are de jure, but not de facto, members of the white majority. They are in limbo — legally considered a part of the white majority, but de facto seen as being in the category ‘other.’”

He also pointed out that Arab Americans can select the “other” category on the census form and write in “Arab” to describe themselves if they want.

“Arab Americans are not perceived by the broad American society as white,” Hamad said. “But since they are legally white, Arab Americans don’t benefit from the classification of minority status, with all the legal and political ramifications that classification entails.”

Despite these ongoing concerns he said that on the whole, Arab Americans have responded well to the census to ensure they are seen, funded and empowered.

“What really matters to the vast majority of Arab Americans is to be counted,” Hamad added.

Hassan Nijem, president of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Chicago, works closely with the Census Bureau and the Arab Americans it hires to engage with Arab and Muslim Americans.

Workers of the organization Make the Road New York attend a Census training meeting in Queens on March 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP)

“There have been some issues,” he said. “Funds have been given mainly to non-Arab organizations and then sub-contracted to only a few Arab American organizations.

“But we have to be active, involved and loud to make sure the Census Bureau hears our voices. The money that can go to the Arab American community is significant, and the political empowerment is critical to ensuring that we have a voice in this country.”

When Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker provided $20 million to promote the census, little of the money reached Arab American organizations, said Nijem. African American and Hispanic groups were the main beneficiaries of the funds, from which a few thousand dollars were allocated to census-awareness campaigns in the Arab and MENA community, he added.

“We can’t wait for the government to see us,” said Nijem. “We have to be loud and make them see us and include us. More money needs to be spent on the census in the Arab and MENA community. It’s not just good for us, it is good for America.”

The encouraging response to the census by Arab Americans in Chicago might be attributable to a long history of efforts to promote inclusion in a particularly diverse city.

As far back as the 1980s, Anna Mustapha, the only Arab American to have served as a member of the Chicago Board of Education, was recruited by the Census Bureau to promote participation by the Arab and MENA communities.

Ellisa Johnson, the deputy regional director of the Chicago Regional Census Bureau, said the 2020 Census recognizes that Chicagoland has a diverse population that speaks about 124 languages. The bureau has hired census workers who speak 24 of them, including Arabic.

“We have one of the most diverse cities in the country and it is important that Arab Americans are included in everything we do,” she added.

“We want everyone to feel included in the 2020 Census. It is vitally important for the MENA community to make sure everyone is counted, to ensure we have fair congressional representation.”

Census 2020 spokesman Cook said much is at risk in communities that do not complete the census form. Census authorities will attempt to fill any gaps created by lack of responses, but their efforts might yield data that is much less accurate than information provided by those who live in the communities.

“If you don’t do it yourself … there are processes and procedures in place where we use proxies to get additional information, look at administrative records and try to fill in those gaps,” Cook said.

However, every person completing their own form, he added, “is the best response and the most accurate information, which can be reflected in political representation as well as federal funding.”

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Twitter: @rayhanania