This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia
It's been five years since Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – or the "religious police" – issued a fatwa that allowed women to cycle under certain conditions. But that didn't change the way society in general treated girls who wanted to ride around on their bikes.
In her BAFTA-nominated 2012 film, Wadjda, Saudi Arabian writer and director Haifaa al-Mansour tells the story of a young girl whose dream is to own a bike, but all she hears from her community is that cycling is for boys. Not only that – she's told stories about how cycling makes girls infertile; how she'll never get married or have kids if she takes it up.
Growing up in Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian port city on the Red Sea, Nadima Abul-Enein heard the same stories when she told people she wanted to take up cycling. But with the support of her family, not only did she get a bike, the 18-year-old started Saudi Arabia's first women-only cycling club, Bisklita.
"When I was a child, I used to ride my bike around my neighbourhood, but I stopped when I got older because of all the negative social pressure," she tells me. "But my mum and sisters encouraged me to pick it up again. When I did, I started posting pictures of my rides on Instagram. It shocked me to see how many Saudi women eventually got in touch to say they wanted to come on the ride. So that's when I decided to start an amateur cycling club for girls."
This was back in 2015, and the club has been growing ever since. "Our team started off with just six members – my mum, four friends and myself," she tells me. "Now, we have over 500 riders of all ages and backgrounds. We have teenagers and mothers, and women with physical disabilities. Every woman is welcome."
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When she's not cycling or at school, Nadima is almost always playing sports. She loves swimming and running, and works as a trainer at the Saudi Climbing Association – the country's first rock climbing organisation. In the future, she hopes to expand the club to cities across the country, before eventually competing in international tournaments.
According to the 2013 fatwa, the religious police say they're happy for women to ride bikes and motorcycles wherever they want, "provided they are modestly dressed" and don't use it as an excuse to remove their abayas – the long modesty robes women in the region wear. The government also recommends that women cycle in the company of a mahram – husband, father or brother – and avoid areas where young men hang around to avoid being harassed.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of cycling while being supervised by a man didn't go down very well at the time, as women across the country took to social media to comment on how ridiculous the suggestion was. Graphic designer Mohammed Sharaf illustrated this silliness in his picture "Not Against the Law", where he mocks the idea of a mahram going along for a ride.
Bisklita, Nadima says, do not ride around with a mahram. "When we first started cycling around Jeddah, people could barely believe what they were seeing," she remembers. "To be honest, it was really difficult at first – we would get strangers shouting abuse and throwing stuff at us. But as people got more and more used to seeing us around, the city has grown more supportive of us."
Despite the progress, the team still come up against some unexpected roadblocks.
"We were stopped recently at a police checkpoint and told that we needed a permit, even though the law doesn't require one," says Nadima. "So I've applied for Team Bisklita to become an official member of the Saudi Cycling Federation."
Nadima has managed to secure some fairly high-profile support for her cause. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Head of the Saudi Women's Sports Authority, has been very vocal about the importance of sports in the region becoming more open to women, and backed Bisklita when they needed help.
"After we were stopped from cycling in certain areas without a permit, we reached out to Princess Reema, who helped arrange weekly practice slots at the city's King Abdullah stadium," Nadima says. "That way, we'd always have somewhere to meet and ride while we wait for our application to be approved."
Inside the King Abdullah stadium, Nadima has even set up her own business – a store called Pisklita that sells specially fitted abayas, appropriate for cycling. "Now we meet at the stadium twice a week – on Sundays for beginners and Tuesdays for more advanced riders," she says. "We've been assured that as soon as our application is approved, we'll be able to cycle anywhere we want."