Harley-Davidson women break the chains of gender stereotypes

Wearing makeup and pops of pink with their biker leathers, Barbara McGeever and Shima Mehri are among a small number of women thriving in the male-dominated world of Harley-Davidsons.

Barbara McGeever, left, who is originally from Ireland, rides the Nightster 1200, a smaller Harley-Davidson bike she has customised to suit her stature. Shima Mehri rides a Sporster 833. Clint McLean for The National
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When Shima Mehri was a young girl growing up in Austria, she would watch people riding motorcycles and dream of one day being able to ride one of her own.

Her mother always lectured Mehri’s two younger brothers, telling them that motorcycles were unsafe and they were never to ride one. Mehri and her family moved back to Iran, where women are banned from riding motorcycles, and her dreams of owning a bike were dashed.

Eight years ago, however, the maths teacher relocated to Dubai and eventually seized the opportunity to turn her dream into reality. “I got my licence and the very next day I started riding. My mum was shocked. Poor her, she was so worried about my brothers that she never thought that one day I would become a biker,” Mehri recalls with a cheeky laugh. That was five years ago.

Irish mum-of-three Barbara McGeever had a very different introduction to motorcycles. The pint-sized blonde met her husband Jimmy when she was 19. “He was always on [Japanese] bikes and I was always the passenger. We had bikes in Ireland, London and Bahrain, and then we moved to Dubai,” she says. “Jimmy had a [Japanese] bike here, too, but one day he met a friend called Sean, who was a really hardy guy. Sean said to Jimmy: ‘Why don’t you give up that [Japanese] bike nonsense and get on the Harley?’”

Initially Jimmy wasn’t convinced the Harley-Davidson could match the speed of the Japanese motorcycles, but one fateful day the couple drove past the Harley showroom and decided to stop in. “There were some really nice bikes and so then Jimmy got his Harley. I was always the passenger – I was called the Sissy Bar on the back.”

After a few years, Jimmy suggested to his wife that she might like to have her own motorcycle. “Jimmy said to me: ‘Babs, would you ever think about riding the bike?’ I said: ‘No honey, I’d never find a bike my size. I’m tiny.’” But the seed had been planted.

When McGeever started having lessons at the Emirates Riding School, the motorcycle was so big that they ordered a smaller one – it’s still there to this day and has been nicknamed “Barbie’s Bike” – and when it came to buying her own Harley, it had to be customised. “The Harley Nightster is a small bike, but I still had to have the [shock absorbers] lowered, the handlebars lowered and the seat cut. It’s a 1,200 [cc].” The bike has a black and red matte finish, and she says she wouldn’t change it for the world. “It’s me. It’s just perfect.”

McGeever and Mehri are among a small number of female motorcyclists in the UAE. McGeever rides with a group called the Finn Hogs, while Mehri is a member of the Dubai Hogs. Hog stands for Harley Owners Group. Of the 50 to 60 members, Abu Dhabi riders included, there are only two women in the Finn Hogs. The percentage is even smaller for the Dubai Hogs. “In our group,” says Mehri, “there’s near to 10 women. In total, it’s a big group; officially there are around 350 members.”

Being such a rare sight on the roads, the women attract their fair share of attention. “When you’re riding along, on your way to Ras Al Khaimah, often you’ll see people in their cars clicking away on their cameras, especially the females. They love it,” McGeever says. “But sometimes you’ll be at the traffic lights on your own and when the guy in the car beside sees you’re a woman, he’ll start revving the engine. I think: Go ahead, I’m not in a hurry. But because you’re on a Harley, you can’t help it, you’re already gone way before them anyway,” McGeever laughs.

“I get a lot of phone numbers given to me … my poor husband,” Mehri adds.

In some countries, Harley-­Davidson riders are associated with gangs and crime, but McGeever and Mehri believe attitudes are different in the UAE.

“There are two types of reactions when people find out I ride a Harley,” Mehri says. “Some of the people think we’re in a gang or we’re looking for trouble, but the other people – and it’s a lot – they encourage us and they think it’s great. They are motivated to start riding, especially when they see a lady on the bike.”

Mehri’s choice of transport has also earned her street cred with the students she tutors. “Sometimes I ride my bike to the classes. Most of my students are boys and they are so excited about my Harley. This is the first thing I can communicate with them. Maths can be so boring for them, but suddenly they have a biker teacher coming to their house when they are expecting someone older, wearing glasses and forcing them to study. When they see their neighbours, they’re so proud. They say: ‘She’s my teacher.’”

As the event organiser for the Finn Hogs, McGeever has found that many businesses are keen to roll out the red carpet for the group. “When I’m organising an event, I’ll ring a lot of the hotels to find a good location and price, and when I speak to the manager, they cannot do enough for you. It’s an attraction for the hotel to have a lot of people coming in with their bikes. Just recently, there was a charity ride for a little girl who drowned – her father was a biker. There must have been a thousand bikes at the event, so it just shows the level of support.

“There will be the odd few people who say: ‘Here comes the riff-raff.’ But I think bikers have a good name here.”

Perhaps part of the reason for this good reputation is the sense of camaraderie and friendship the Harley riders have, not just within their groups, but with all bikers. “The Finn Hogs are a real family; we watch out for one another,” McGeever says. “They’re a brilliant group to be with and although I know a lot of people in other groups – and they’re all very nice people – one thing I find is that when you’re riding, you’re meeting people, so it’s a great way to socialise. When you’re on the road and you see other bikers coming towards you, everyone will have their hands up [saluting as they go past].”

Mehri agrees. “At the end of it all, we are all friends. It doesn’t matter who you ride with. We are all brothers and sisters with the same passion.”

The women may wear the leather vests, trousers and knee-high boots typical of a biker, but they add personal touches. McGeever tames her long blond hair with a pink bandana, while Mehri adds a bit of bling with heavy-duty chains. While some of their fellow female bikers are hooked on biker fashion, Mehri is busy adding badges to her vest. Some represent the mileage she has clocked up on her Sportster 883, while others indicate the groups she has ridden with. “Behind these badges, there are a lot of stories. For example, this one – Route 66,” she says, pointing to a sewn-on badge, “was my dream. That’s the biggest dream for every biker. I put the badge here as my dream and last year I finally did it, so I added another badge to show that.”

Mehri is also contemplating a challenge to ride around the world on her Harley in 200 days.

McGeever, on the other hand, is planning a 24-hour ride, called the Hard Butt Ride, for the Finn Hogs later this year. The ride involves completing a set distance, such as 800 kilometres, in 24 hours, rather than riding for 24 hours straight. “We’ve also got the Seven Emirates Ride [today], which is a long ride. I’ve done it many times. You set off at 8am and if you’re lucky, you’ll be back for 5 or 6pm. It usually depends on how you’re moving or how many stops you’ve had. There is no time limit,” she says.

Both women usually participate in organised rides every Friday morning. For the Finn Hogs, there is an average of eight to 10 bikers, while for the Dubai Hogs, it can reach up to 80. Anyone who has driven the Emirates’ roads, especially the mountain regions, on a Friday morning will be familiar with the sight and sound of Harley groups. And in this weather, McGeever can’t get enough. “It’s lovely on Friday morning because you have the road to yourself. In our weekly rides, sometimes it’s just Jimmy, myself and the road captain – sometimes people are lazy on a Friday morning – but usually it’s eight to 10 bikes. In this weather, we go every weekend. I can’t handle the heat in summer.” The groups will usually ride to Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain, but for McGeever, the best ride in the UAE is around the mountains in Hatta.

Mehri prefers Jebel Jais. “The Harley is so comfortable for long rides, so you can really enjoy it, not just the speed,” she says. “The other thing I like is that it is the only bike you can ride in a group and enjoy the ride. Other groups of bikes, you never see them riding in a disciplined way – one goes to the right, one stays there.”

But if you really want Mehri to explain – in a woman’s way – why she prefers the Harley brand, she puts it like this: “It’s like asking me why don’t I go to Zara instead of Hermès.” As a woman whose childhood was spent dreaming of one day being able to ride a motorcycle, it’s little wonder she has aimed straight for the top.