Image: Louise Matsakis
In October, the Drone Racing League (DRL), the world’s first and most prestigious professional drone racing organization, announced it was hosting its 2018 DRL Allianz World Championship in Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for gender discrimination. Only in September, after decades of protest, did women finally gain the right to drive a car. Women and LGBT people there still lack many basic human rights.
DRL’s decision to host the competition in Saudi Arabia immediately caused a controversy in the drone racing community, and is being viewed as a blow to equality in an already male-dominated field. The Drone Racing League doesn’t have any female pilots listed on its website, for example. The organization says, however, that the location of the championship will have no effect on women’s ability to participate.Zoe Stumbaugh, who Motherboard profiled in September, is one of the most prominent female drone racers. She announced on Facebook that she was “publicly protesting the decisions” DRL has made.“Why are there no women in drone sports? Not saying there are no female competitors. I know more amazing female pilots than I can keep track of and had the pleasure of racing against,” Stumbaugh wrote. “What I haven’t seen are televised leagues in the US including female competitors, and most recently the Drone Racing League announcing their plans to host the season 3 finale in Saudi Arabia, barring some of the best women in drone sports from competing if they were even invited and or qualified to compete.”Hundreds of people commented on Stumbaugh’s post, many expressing similar outrage at the decision. "I wish more forethought would have been put into picking their locations and creating an environment for all competitors to be equals, as it stands DRL's statements seem very counter to that of their actions," Stumbaugh told me in an email.
Sally French, founder of the website The Drone Girl, wrote an article questioning how DRL would be able to have female or openly LGBT drone racers attend the championship given Saudi Arabia’s lack of gender equality and LGBT protections.“DRL is holding their contest in one of the most dangerous countries for women, which will likely leave a lot of potential racers out of participating in the race,” French told me in an email.Women must often obtain the permission of a male guardian in order to travel in Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch. The US State Department warns that women must be met by a male sponsor upon arrival in the country.In her blog post, French questioned whether female drone pilots would need to bring male escorts with them to Saudi Arabia, were they to compete. Benjamin Johnson, DRL’s head of business development and marketing, told me in an email this would not be the case. “This would not meet our standards,” he said.DRL is hosting the finale in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, which is one of the co-sponsors of the event. “It is similar in structure to the deals that have helped bring our races to Munich, London, and other new cities in 2018,” Johnson said.Other prominent conventions and events have taken place in Saudi Arabia this year, including Comic-Con and Nitro Circus.Johnson told me that women would be able to compete in the championship in Saudi Arabia were they to qualify, and that DRL was taking steps to ensure that women will be guaranteed participation.
“We are honored by the opportunity to bring the inclusive and diverse sport of drone racing to the Middle East, where we continue to expose more fans to the skill of the pilots and the thrill of 3D racing,” he said. “When DRL agreed to host the event in Saudi Arabia, it was done with full understanding that women would be an integral part of the event.”The DRL championship is set to be Saudi Arabia’s first professional drone race, according to the press release announcing the event. Drone events are planned, or have occurred, in other Middle Eastern countries with controversial political and social climates, including the United Arab Emirates and Oman.The last Drone Racing League Allianz World Championship took place this past June in London. No women competed.
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