05 May Inspiring Women in Qatar: Wajeeha Al-Husseini
When I heard my Betty Design’s teammate Wajeeha’s story about her putting on Qatar’s First Ladies Only Cycling Day, I was blown away. As a Western woman, we take for granted the acceptability of our culture when it comes to women’s sport, including what we wear. I’m so honored that Wajeeha agreed to be a guest and tell us in our own words how she and her friend Eulogy executed this amazing event. I’m convinced that her efforts will have reverberations way beyond those 350 participants. Please take the time to share her amazing story!
Wajeeha Al-Husseini in her own words:
It all started last summer when I was working with the Qatar Cyclists Center, which was established earlier last year under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sports. I was working with them to develop their strategy and event ideas that we could sponsor, host or organize. The Director and I, along with my expat friend Eulogy (South Africa), had the same idea, to host a “Women’s Only” event.
Qatar is a relatively conservative country. Everyone, locals and expats alike, are asked to dress modestly and respect the culture of our Islamic country. I want you to know this is NOT oppression. It is actually wonderful from a family values perspective. I swim, bike and run in my usual triathlon gear, but I do not walk into a mall or other public place in a tank top and tiny shorts. The reason is that it does not need a church or a mosque to be the only place for where you can worship: the entire world is a place of worship, God is everywhere, and so we should dress respectfully. Qatari women, devout Arab women and veiled women (of all nationalities) tend to be dressed very conservatively and therefore do not join public events where men and women are together. Some women, expats included, simply are not comfortable cycling with the men because they tend to be macho and a fun ride can turn into ‘who can drop the hammer’.
After much discussion with Eulogy and I, the Director pitched the concept of Qatar’s First Ladies Only Cycling Day – Women on Wheels to the Minister, who approved it! The entire event would be organized, managed and run by entirely by women. The only male allowed at the event was the ambulance driver parked outside the venue; the onsite paramedics were women too. No mobile phones or photography was allowed to ensure that the women who were veiled were free to unveil and that women who didn’t want their pictures taken could be assured of their privacy. (Note: Photos included here are with express permission)
Over 1,000 women were interested in the event, 500 registered and on the day of the event we had over 350 women. Ladies that didn’t have their own bicycles were encouraged to walk or run around the venue. We also had trial bikes for women to test and ride. Over 90% of the women that were in attendance were Qatari. The expats were the United Nations of women from the UK, Ireland, Holland, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Canada, India, Philippines, Malaysia, Lebanon, Syria and the United States, as well as women flying in from neighboring Saudi Arabia just to attend.
Up until this point, we still didn’t realize the impact and it was only after the event that I started to receive calls and inquiries from other women, Qatari and expats alike, asking for the next event. I am now in talks with the host venue about making this a regular activity. Of course not with all the hoopla, but to provide a safe, enclosed venue, away from eyes, that will allow women and children the freedom to cycle, run or walk.
The best part was also hearing the women expats also talk about the event, seeing so many women at a sporting event and how nice it was that there were no guys to make them feel uncomfortable with machismo or foul language. Importantly, the expat women were able to talk the local women, telling them why they ride, what inspired them and sharing advice. I loved seeing how the women were inspired and I am so proud to have been involved in setting the stage for a new and healthy lifestyle in Qatar!