Growing up, Baraah Luhaid loved cycling in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, even though women were technically outlawed from riding in public, according to the Guardian. It was a difficult situation and it didn't ease up when she graduated from high school and applied to work at a bike shop — no one would hire a woman.
In 2013, female cycling was finally legalized, but it was only allowed in parks or on beaches, with a male relative present.
“It’s the cultural barriers,” Luhaid told the Guardian.
People regularly roll down their windows and shout insults and the police routinely stop her, she said.
“Last week I was stopped because someone complained I was causing offence,” she laughed.
Luhaid, however, was determined to ride freely through the streets of Riyadh, and make sure all other women could, too.
Now she runs the country’s first gender-inclusive cycling community and business — Spokes Hub. It has a cafe and workshops, and it’s the only place in the country where women can congregate to share their passion for cycling.
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There are still countless barriers to deal with.
Luhaid said her parent’s worry about her safety in a conservative society, where people can be judgmental towards the actions of women, where male consent is needed before doing most public activities.
“I was confronted with aggression and negativity,” Luhaid told the Guardian. She said some women feared she would lead their daughters astray. Instead of giving up on her dream for all Saudi women to cycle freely, Luhaid decided to lead by example and people eventually came to her.
The Spokes Hub originally catered to men and is at the center of the University, where Luhaid’s brother attends school. Even today, she’s technically barred from her own business, but she’s found a way to include women and girls — offering Spokes Hub services from the back of a van. In order to attract support, Luhaid’s brother, one of very few Saudi male feminists, represents the business, since investors scoff when they hear “female CEO of a sports business.”
Spokes Hub has won a kingdom-wide prize for start-ups, and Princess Reema, deputy president of Saudi Arabia’s Women’s Sports Authority, has publicly endorsed the project, according to the Guardian.
There have been small steps for women’s rights in the deeply conservative and repressive culture in recent years, according to Think Progress. In 2011, Saudi Arabia sent a woman athlete to the Olympics; granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015; and appointed 30 women to the previously all-male Shura Council, a formal advisory committee in Saudi Arabia.
Luhaid is continuing her mission of promoting female cycling throughout the streets in Riyadh.
“When I advocate for women’s cycling, I’m advocating for women’s independence,” Luhaid told the Guardian. “Changing core beliefs requires slow, consistent work. It’s challenging, but someone has to start.”