Say what you will about the advances in women’s rights in the Middle East over the last few years, there’s one place where men continue to reign supreme. Public space from Algiers to Manama is a male domain, and Jordan’s capital, though arguably more forgiving, is no exception.
The Arab urban environment is fuelled by equal parts oil and testosterone; millennial boys loiter in front of cafes and kiosks, public and private transport systems are managed by men and street vendors and shop keepers tend to be male. The winding streets of Amman, like most Arab cities, are soaked in Y chromosome and while neighbouring Saudi Arabia has just granted women the right to drive, one Jordanian woman is inspiring girls across the entire region to claim their rights to their cities – and she’s doing it on two wheels.
At just 20-years-old Laila Suleiman is a social media sensation – not for plugging hair vitamins or makeup tutorials or even designer #OOTDs (though the blonde bombshell certainly rocks some killer looks) – but for her almost unique presence on the streets of Amman, zipping around on 750 CC Suzuki racer motorcycle. “I think I’ve caused some change in how people view a ‘biker chick’ [in Jordan]. My social media platforms, and specifically Instagram, have had an effect on many girls,” says the undergrad student.
It was, in fact, Instagram that lead us to discover the young biker whose stunning photos are alluring in every language (“No photographer here – just me, a tripod and a timer!” she laughs when we ask about her picture-perfect poses). But what really caught our attention about Suleiman’s social media presence is the levity, fun and fearlessness she brings to an image which is often both sexualised and belittled. Instead of falling for the male fantasy, Suleiman captures the excitement and amusement of being only one of three women in Jordan getting around on racing motorcycles through witty reaction videos. Her latest, entitled Reasons Why I’m Late, shows multiple men expressing their admiration for her – in good humour – and even a marriage proposal from an adorable elderly man. Meanwhile, a traffic cop checking her licences asks, ‘Aren’t you the girl who had a black Kawasaki?’ – a testament to her impact on Jordanian society.
Suleiman’s social media presence brings levity, fun and fearlessness to an image which is often both sexualised and belittled. Instead of falling for the male fantasy, Suleiman captures the excitement and amusement of being only one of three women in Jordan getting around on racing motorcycles through witty reaction videos.
“[Girls] see my daily posts of how much fun it is, and I try to encourage them to start training even if they can’t purchase a motorcycle right away,” says Suleiman. “However, the mentality is still old-fashioned when it comes to this subject and it will take much more time for me to normalise it. This is also a reason why I post videos of people’s reactions on the road to make it seem “funny” instead of scary.”
With city life becoming more stressful across the world, it was practicality that lead Suleiman to ditch four wheels for two – and a sprinkling of girl power, inherited from her Swiss mother. “My mother was a biker for a while, but at the time I wasn’t a big fan and in fact was completely against it due to the risks especially in a country like Jordan where road accidents happen often. But one day when I was annoyed by the amount of traffic I have to face daily on my way to university I thought ‘Wow, those bikers are lucky”, and that’s when I started researching and came across a race motorcycle. It was the Honda CBR600. It was love at first sight, without having any knowledge of what kind of motorcycle that was since my mother had only owned a classic Harley Davidson.”
“On the other hand, it took a long while to convince my father that this is what I want,” she continues. “Especially a racing motorcycle that he’d never seen a woman drive… After getting the license and starting out on a 250 CC motorcycle, he started to get used to the idea, but he stills prays daily for my safe travels. And now I’ve upgraded to 750 CC, he’s still stressed out every time I leave the house.”
There might be some men that don’t like what I’m doing but I believe that there will always be people who are jealous and that shouldn’t stop me. Instead it should motivate me to encourage more woman [to ride motorcycles] until it no longer intimidates them.
A father’s well-intentioned worry, however, seems like a small price to pay for the empowerment she’s achieved by – quite literally – throwing caution into the wind and roaring through the city on her own terms. It’s no surprise then, that Suleiman has become an inspirational authority on motorcycles and riding in Jordan, for men and women alike. “What also encourages me to keep posting is the daily messages I receive from men and women about how awesome it is to see a female biker on the road with a race motorcycle. Many send me questions about how they should convince their parents, and what kind of motorcycle they should get to start. This shows me that my message is slowly being conveyed.”
Now ‘slowly’ isn’t a term that’s usually associated with motorcycling but, as the fable has taught us, slow and steady wins the race. Ride by ride, post by post, Suleiman is changing what it means to be a modern Arab woman in a traditional Arab city. As for the men? “There might be some men that don’t like what I’m doing but I believe that there will always be people who are jealous and that shouldn’t stop me. Instead it should motivate me to encourage more woman [to ride motorcycles] until it no longer intimidates them. Women can drive just as good as men, it has nothing to do with masculinity and that is what I want people to understand.”