A Muslim woman’s place? In Casablanca, it could be burning rubber on a Harley…
| Members of Les Miss Moto Maroc all-female motorbike club in Casablanca, Morocco.
On the streets of Morocco, an all-female club is defying western stereotypes of oppression and breaking down barriers
Night has just fallen over the busy Moroccan city of Casablanca as a loud swarm of motorbikes rolls up the main street in the central district of Racine. The leather-clad riders come to a stop outside the terrace of a popular cafe and remove their helmets before dismounting from their powerful machines.
Silhouetted against a backdrop of moving traffic, it’s easy to make out lots of long hair being flicked, shaken and ruffled back into place. None of which would be surprising… but for fact that this group is made up entirely of women, something that has also caught the attention of the crowd of tea drinkers, many of whom are now staring at them with astonishment. “We call ourselves Les Miss Moto Maroc and we’re the first all-female motorcycle club in Morocco,” says Dalila Mosbah, the leader of the group, sitting down at a table.
The club also hosts an annual international rally, March Moto Madness, held in the same month as International Women’s Day, which sees some 1,000 riders take to the streets in support of women’s rights.
Mosbah explains: “It’s a club of women of all ages and from all backgrounds. The youngest among us have recently graduated from university and the oldest are retired, like myself, but we all share a passion for big bikes [more than 500cc]. We regularly meet up to ride out and explore our beautiful country, as well as simply catching up for coffee and a chat, like today.”
Large motorbikes remain a luxury few can afford in Morocco, where according to the latest figures more than 4 million people live below the poverty line, but their popularity is on the rise: from 31,353 registered in the kingdom in 2010 to 55,517 in 2016. However, less than 1% are owned by women.
Mosbah owned a moped when she was a teenager but then stopped riding. On her retirement in 2008 she graduated to a full motorbike licence because she “was desperate to own a Harley Davidson”. Three years later, in 2011, she founded Miss Moto Maroc after riding Route 66 in the United States with her husband, and being impressed by the all-female motorbike groups they met on their travels.
At first, her main motivation was to share her passion for bikes with other women and encourage her fellow countrywomen to dare to ride. Now she is also determined to destroy the western image of Muslim women as restricted, powerless and oppressed, and to demonstrate that her countrywomen can be as “free” as their western counterparts. “Many foreigners think Arab women aren’t allowed to do anything, but that’s not true,” Mosbah says. “Les Miss Moto Maroc club represents modern Moroccan women. We’re not stuck at home wearing djellabas and headscarves, simply existing to cook for our husbands and children. There’s much more to us: we only cover our faces to have fun.”
One of the women Mosbah has inspired is Ilham Filali, a pharmacist and club member, who also lives in Casablanca. She learned how to ride five years ago after seeing a report about Miss Moto Maroc on television. “Watching these women on screen gave me the courage to get a motorbike,” she says. “It was my mum who first saw the report and taped it for me. She was very impressed and I was quickly seduced by the idea of going out to ride with other Moroccan women. I think my mum would have loved to do something similar when she was my age, but back then it wasn’t possible.”
Since Morocco ratified an international agreement on gender equality in 1993 there has been significant progress in domestic legislation. Female representation in parliament increased dramatically from 1% in 2003 to 21% in 2016, and Morocco’s 2004 Family Code is hailed as one of the most progressive laws protecting women’s rights in the Arab world.
In everyday life, however, things aren’t quite so simple. Filali doesn’t use her bike to commute to the pharmacy where she works. It is located in a poor neighbourhood, and she fears that mindsets are more traditional there. She doesn’t think that her hobby would be accepted, and believes many customers would simply not understand. “If they saw me, their pharmacist, on a motorbike it would be very bad,” she says. “Many would lose all respect for me. In their minds, it would be inconceivable and very wrong. So I never ride into work. It’s a secret that I also keep from some of my friends, for similar reasons.” Filali isn’t alone in feeling society would disapprove of her choice of transport. Civil engineer Fatimzara Lahrir, the youngest member of the club, also shares similar views. “A woman riding a motorbike in Morocco is still taboo,” she says. “Some people support us and are proud of what we do, but others are shocked.
“At traffic lights we often get funny looks. Normally it’s men who are the most surprised. They sometimes stare with open mouths but it doesn’t bother me – I know that I’m helping to advance the cause of gender equality.”
In general, women enjoy more empowerment in the larger cities of Morocco but in smaller towns and villages people remain more conservative. For that reason, the club often organises rides that takes it into the backcountry – to share its message with those who could most benefit from it.
March Moto Madness is being held in Marrakech rather than Casablanca because the city has an interesting history of women riding bicycles and scooters. Since the 1960s, the city has been heralded for its independent spirit and strong culture of female emancipation.
“March Moto madness is an incredible event,” says Lahrir. “It’s a few days of fun where male and female bikers come from all over the world to get together and celebrate women’s rights. We organise a big parade, concerts and prizegivings. It’s brilliant to feel we’ve got global support behind us.”
Mohammed Mohrli is a regular participant, and president of the Moroccan Union of Motorcyclists, which is made up of 22 clubs and boasts more than 5,000 members. Most of these men welcome female riders into their ranks but those who don’t probably have safety concerns, says Mohrli. In 2017 there were nearly 90,000 accidents on Moroccan roads, with more than 3,500 fatalities. In Britain, the number of casualties is half that figure yet there are eight times more vehicles on our roads.
“I don’t think men here are against women riding motorbikes,” Mohrli says. “To me it seems as though they worry about them in a brotherly way. They don’t like the idea of their sisters getting hurt, but once they see them driving safely, I don’t think there’s a problem. They wouldn’t try to forbid a woman from riding if they saw her in the street. It’s not like in the Gulf, where it is a different situation altogether.”
Mohrli is convinced that Moroccan female bikers are playing an important role and will have a positive influence on the rest of the Arab world. He hails them as examples and says they can drive progress by demonstrating that you can still be a good Muslim even if you ride a motorbike or enjoy other similar activities. “I have a one-year-old daughter called Hassa,” he says. “I recently bought her first motorbike – it’s a toy plastic one. My greatest wish is for her to share my passion for riding. One day we can hopefully hit the road together, side-by-side. Surely nobody can say there’s anything wrong with that?”
Tags: Real Women