Arab women clear the hurdles to their horse-riding dreams

Ayesha Al Khoori talks to some female Arab equestrians whose families were not always supportive, and explores the empowering influence of the sport.

Fatma Al Marri competing at the Qatar International Equestrian Festival on February 25. Courtesy Fatma Al Marri
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Ayesha Al Khoori talks to some female Arab horse riders whose families were not always supportive of the sport.

When she was a young girl, Salama Al Saadi's family members would laugh about her dream to become a horse rider.

She still sought her mother's permission, to no avail.

"I want to try, but they implanted fear in me," says Al Saadi, now 22.

While the men in her family are allowed to horse ride, Al Saadi's mother believes it is unsafe for girls in particular to engage in the sport.

"It's a culture thing," Al Saadi says.

"But the idea is still on my mind," she says, believing horse riding will instil in her responsibility and confidence. "I'm not losing hope. I still wish to be a horse rider one day."

For 21-year-old Dana Al Mutawa, it wasn't difficult to convince her parents to allow her to ride horses. "Although my father didn't accept the idea for a while, he changed when he observed how devoted I was," she says.

Al Mutawa, who has been riding for seven years now, adds that having male cousins and family friends engaged in the sport has "made it easier for my family to go through the process of acceptance".

While her parents like seeing her active, her father draws the line when it comes to competitive horse-riding events, finding competitions to be time-consuming.

Al Mutawa says this restriction once caused her to briefly withdraw from her family. "But I know they will reconsider it," she says. "And someday they won't pressure me to stop."

Her friends were initially against her hobby, but later on became supportive.

"Through the years many local girls have entered the equine field, so it became a normal phenomenon in our society," she says.

Referring to religious traditions, Al Mutawa argues that whenever she rides horses, she keeps herself fully covered.

"And my brothers accompany me at my racing events," she adds.

Al Mutawa believes perseverance is key to pursuing one's passion: "I've held on to my passion, and kept everything else in my life balanced."

Fatma Al Marri, 18, has been riding for close to a decade. She says everyone in her family was initially against it, until her mother convinced them to be open-minded about it.

"My mother said: 'OK, why not?' and gave me a chance," she says.

Al Marri believes many reject the idea of a female horse rider because they think it's a male-dominated sport that requires power.

This didn't stop Al Marri from emerging as the champion at last year's National Day Cup endurance race, as well as winning eight trophies at various prior events. "Horse riding makes you fit, relieves stress and teaches you to be powerful," she says.

Obaid Ghidyar Al Dhaheri, a 35-year-old equestrian trainer at the Baniyas Equestrian Centre, has been working with both male and female riders for more than two decades. He says horse riding benefits both genders by teaching them not only how to be fit, but also to be proud of themselves and what they can achieve.

"Those who benefit physically and mentally don't want to stop," Al Dhaheri says. He believes there is nothing culturally or religiously wrong with horse riding. "Those who don't know what horse riding is will say anything," he says. "We can't blame them for not knowing."

Al Dhaheri suggests that parents worried about their daughters engaging in the activity should know that private all-female training centres exist.

"Horse riding doesn't harm the girl in any way," he says. "On the contrary, it helps her in many ways."

The Quran condones horse riding

Sheikh Seddiq Mohamed, an Awqaf mufti in Abu Dhabi, said Islam does not forbid horse riding. On the contrary, the practice of horse riding is condoned in the Holy Quran.

Quoting from chapter 16 (Surat Al Nahl), verse 8, Sheikh Seddiq said: "The Quran clearly says: 'And [He has created] horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride and use for show.' If Allah created them to ride, why would humans who are also his creation reject it?" A Hadith (saying) by the Prophet Mohammed also celebrated the art of horse riding, said Sheikh Seddiq. "Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said: 'Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding.' That shows horse riding is indeed not forbidden."

Sheikh Seddiq said that since the olden days, both women and men used to ride horses, donkeys and camels as a means of transportation. They would ride such creatures to go to Mecca for Haj purposes and to fight in battles, as well as to travel.

"If there is any danger to [a woman's] pride, chastity and honour, then that is considered taboo," he said. "But if she is decent and reserved, then it's OK."