(AFP / Atta Kenare, AFP / Fadel Senna, AFP / Khaled Desouki, AFP / Patrick Baz)

Get your motor running - women bikers in Muslim lands

Beirut, January 13, 2016 -- I don’t remember exactly when, but a little while back I realized that there were women in Lebanon riding motorcycles. Now the country has a lot of different aspects and in many ways is very European, but still, we’re in the Middle East here and women riding motorcycles is not an ordinary thing. So I decided to look into it further.

Since moving back to Lebanon, I’ve been spending most of my time on lifestyle projects, documenting society, rather than news.

For those who don't know Lebanon, it’s a country with a lot of contrasts and contradictions. They often say that Lebanon is a country where you can ski in the morning and spend the afternoon at the beach -- it’s so small, you can go from being on the mountain to the coastline in a single day.

Well the same thing goes for the society here. In Beirut you can go from a conservative neighborhood that you would easily identify as an observant Muslim one, where the women are veiled and covered from head to toe, to one that could be transplanted to Moscow, Paris Or LA, where the women are in mini-skirts and heels. I like to say that the country is home to all kinds of people, from the Taliban to the Chippendales.

Grace Kassab, Lebanon. (AFP / Patrick Baz)

Away from the cliche

After I realized that there were women bikers here, I did some research. It turned out that it wasn't one or two here and there, but that there are about 500 of them in Lebanon. So I decided to do some photo shoots.

The women were very welcoming about it. I think we were on the same wavelength on this point -- we in the media tend to stereotype Arab women, as conservative, religious, veiled. Well, the reality is a lot more nuanced. If you look at my photos, I don't think the cliche of an "Arab woman" is what will come to mind.

Nissa Hajj, Lebanon. (AFP / Patrick Baz)

My editors at AFP joked that some of my photos turned out like they were for a "girlie" calendar. But honestly, it were the women who were directing the shoot. They knew exactly what they wanted. All I was saying was that I wanted a shot on the bike, a shot near the bike, for example. But they were the ones who were directing the shoot, telling me what types of photos they wanted.

Nissa Hajj, Lebanon. (AFP / Patrick Baz)

I was trying to show something different from the cliches. I think we succeeded.

Annie Bader, Lebanon. (AFP / Patrick Baz)

Sense of freedom

The women themselves, they came from all different backgrounds. In Lebanon we have Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians and the women represented all of these groups. But they were all from either middle or upper class. They were all educated, they all work and none of them is religious -- if they were, they wouldn't be riding because it's frowned upon. And they're all open-minded. I guess you have to be if you're going to be a woman riding a motorcycle in a Middle East country.

Some of them had issues, however. For example some of them hide the fact that they ride from their families, because it would be a problem and their parents wouldn't approve.

Members of the Lebanon chapter of Ladies of Harley (Davidson), Beirut, Lebanon. (AFP / Patrick Baz)

The one common thread between all of them was freedom. They all told me of the sense of freedom that they got from riding their bikes.

Maybe surprisingly, when you consider where they are, but they said that they never get negative comments from other drivers. Of course they don't go into neighborhoods where they would get negative comments. But still. They say that the other drivers are generally very positive. One woman said that a cop once challenged her to a race, to see which one of them would be faster. She declined. I guess she didn't want to risk seeing what happened if she won that race.

Suzan Khalaf, Lebanon. (AFP / Patrick Baz)

The riders in Lebanon aren't all Lebanese. You have Arab countries where women are forbidden from driving a car, never mind a motorcycle, so you have some of them who come here to ride. For example, there are a few women from Saudi Arabia who ride here, there is one from Sudan.

Once I was done with my shoots and submitted it to my editors, they suggested expanding it to other countries in the region, to show the women bikers in places you wouldn’t ordinarily find them -- other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

When i pitched the idea to the other photographers in the region they were very excited. It's a great project and something different from what we usually do.

Click on a photo to start slideshow of women bikers in Lebanon:

Morocco - ‘all types of women’

I thought it was a great idea, writes Fadel Senna, the photographer who did the shoot in Morocco.

In Morocco, there is often a view of a woman as someone who hides, who is submissive. You have this of course, but you have other women, you have all types of women and this was a great way to show it.

Plus the motorcycle is such a symbol of freedom, which goes nicely with the idea that not all girls in a country like Morocco fit the stereotype.

Camelia Mentak, Morocco. (AFP/Fadel Senna)

I photographed three women. One was a fashion designer and rode motocross bikes, one was a policewoman and one was a physical therapist and rode a Harley Davidson. All three had families that were ok with them riding, they encouraged them. None of them was conservative; otherwise they wouldn't be riding.

The policewoman said that she loved serving in the motorcycle brigade because by being a female figure of authority out in public on a bike she was involved in the emancipation of women in Morocco and, with that, the development of the country.

The woman who rode motocross, her husband is a coach of the motocross, so it's a passion that they share. She was very enthusiastic about doing the shoot, to show other women that anything is possible. She doesn't really get any negative comments because she always rides on the tracks.

Mey Zniber, Morocco. (AFP / Fadel Senna)

But the woman who rides the Harley Davidson, she does sometimes get negative comments. I could feel it when we were shooting. When people see her, they are shocked, they don't understand or are very, very curious. Marrakesh is full of girls riding scooters, but it's not every day that they see a girl with a heavy motorcycle like that. So she definitely gets some looks. Men stare and it's often not a stare of goodwill.

She says that most of the time, people are so shocked to see her that they can’t help but stare. Some say that they are very impressed. Others just continue staring and there is no doubt that they disapprove of what she is doing.

Click on a photo to start slideshow of women bikers in Morocco:

Iran - banned from the streets

In Iran, riding is not something that women can do freely -- riding motor bikes in public is forbidden for them, writes Atta Kenare, who did the Iranian shoot.

I focused on Behnaz Shafie. She is 27 years old, holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and used to work as an accountant, but decided to quit her job and focus on her racing. She is lucky in that her family approves.

Behnaz Shafiei, Iran. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

She and other enthusiasts can only ride indoors, on race tracks. When I did the shoot, we had 10 women come to ride at the Azadi sport complex in Tehran. It was the first time that women bike racers rode in the complex.

Behnaz Shafiei, Maryam Talai, Shahrzad Nazemi, Noora Naraqi, Solmaz Zolghadr, Iran. (AFP / Atta Kenare)

Shafie encourages other women to ride bikes, to show that the place for Iranian women is not just at home. She and the other riders are trying to start a women’s section in the motor bike federation. We’ll see if they succeed.

Click on a photo to start slideshow of women bikers in Iran:

Patrick Baz is an AFP photographer currently based in Beirut. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Below are the slideshows of photo essays that AFP photographers have done on women bikers in Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia.

Click on a photo to start.




Patrick Baz