Muslim and Bedouin girls take to the road on motorcycles

When a religious Muslim woman rides a motorcycle, it is big news.

NERVANA ALI stops for a break on on a motorcycle ride around Acre's walls (photo credit: Courtesy)
NERVANA ALI stops for a break on on a motorcycle ride around Acre's walls
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even with the long, fake dreadlocks attached to her helmet, people would not guess that the rider confidently leaning into the winding turns of a northern Israel road is a woman. And when 26-year-old Nervana Ali, of Jadeidi-Makr in the Western Galilee, takes off her helmet and reveals that she is wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim woman’s head-covering, people often do a double-take.
When a religious Muslim woman rides a motorcycle, it is big news. In fact, she was recently featured on an Arab TV news program as one of the first religious Muslim women to get her motorcycle license in Israel, if not the first. Ali has garnered almost 9,000 followers on Instagram.
Ali is part of a growing trend, as seen at the Hege Motorcycle Riding School in Kabul, a village of 15,000 near the Ahihud Junction in the Western Galilee. On a recent afternoon, there were four women practicing on the track – doing figure-eights, working on braking and other skills – under the watchful eye of Ahmed Saleh, the owner of Hege. Saleh seemed to take a fatherly pride in the way the women rode around. In addition to Ali, there was her sister, Nancy; Amneh Hebe, a math teacher in Kabul; and Aya Sawad, a 20-year-old Bedouin woman from the nearby town of Tamra.
Sawad said she got her license at the Hege School last year, partly to avoid the traffic she encounters as she rides to Safed College where she studies criminology. Moreover, she had the dream of riding a motorcycle since she was a little girl when she watched movies and saw women in other countries riding them. She said she expected people in her village to criticize her for riding, but “They tell me how brave I am. They say that it is great that I have achieved my dream.”
There are currently five women who have received their motorcycle license from his school, said Saleh, a former deputy mayor of Kabul. He said his two daughters, one 27, the other 30, are also learning how to ride motorcycles.
That doesn’t surprise him. He isn’t at all surprised by how well women ride. A woman sits straighter on the motorcycle seat, he explained. They’re more careful than men are on the road, they’re more disciplined. When men start learning at his school, “they think they know everything, whereas a woman comes in feeling like she knows nothing and is ready to learn.” He cautions novice riders to always use their mirrors and to look over their shoulders.
SALEH SAID the people in Kabul are becoming more accepting of women riders, even religious women.
Ali said that when she was eight years old she decided to put on a hijab and that she will never take it off because it is haram, “forbidden.” She said her mother wears a hijab but none of her sisters do. It was something she felt inspired to do. About the same time, she saw her brother ride on a dirt bike, (an off-road motorcycle) and told him, “I want to ride.”
She said it as a joke. In the Arab sector, women rarely ride bicycles, let alone motorcycles. But her brother took her seriously, and her parents did not object to her learning how to ride at the Hege School. When she got her license, her father agreed to buy her a scooter, but Ali worked hard – she’s a make-up artist – and saved her money. With her older brother, Ali bought a Yamaha motorcycle and put the receipt on the table to show her father. She thought he would be angry at her but he, like Sawad’s father in Tamra, was concerned for her safety and that people would give her a hard time for riding.
“An Arab woman riding is looked at strangely,” Ali admitted.
“I don’t pay attention to what anyone says,” added Nancy, her sister, who studied sport education and sociology at Ohalo College in Katzrin. In fact, she said that once her sister buys a larger motorcycle, she will buy the bike that Nervana now owns.
On her first ride after she bought her motorcycle, Ali said she was a little nervous because she hadn’t ridden in four years while she was saving up her money. She wanted her father’s permission because she wasn’t sure of herself. He told her, “Be careful. Don’t pay attention to what anyone says. Just go.”
When asked if she thought about continuing riding once she got married, Ali said she wasn’t sure she would even marry.
“You don’t always know if a husband will let you go,” she said. “He might say that he doesn’t have a problem, then you get married and he’ll tell you no.”
For now, she is planning rides with her girlfriends and has already taken a trip through the Golan with her sister on the back of the bike.
“It is such an amazing feeling to ride a motorcycle,” Ali said. “I’m a woman and it was my dream and I did it.”
The writer is the author of several books, including The Mom Who Took off On her Motorcycle; A Remarkable Kindness: A Novel (HarperCollins), and The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, which was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She lives with her family in Shavei Zion.