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Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia: Riding Against Stereotypes

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

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Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia! Who’s the Solo sister? If you’re following cycling personalities who are now travelling the world on their bike you would probably know her!

If you don’t, no worries you will get to know her slowly by reading this whole article! Let’s get to know about her Saudi Arabian experience first!

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia: A Journey of Self-Discovery and Empowerment

SAUDI ARABIA is probably not top of most people’s travel wish lists, but if Mohammed Bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030 project comes to fruition the kingdom will be among the top 10 most visited countries by 2030.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia Hels on Wheels
Adorable Saudi Kid

For a nation that as recently as 2018 didn’t so much as offer a tourist visa, this is a colossal undertaking.

Pilgrim numbers will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting to numerically compete with the likes of holiday heavyweights France, Turkey, Mexico & Thailand.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia Hels on Wheels
Medina – second-holiest of three key cities in Islamic tradition

Undeterred, Saudi Arabia’s tourism development is already evident from pre-Islamic Al-Ula to the ‘city of the future’ Neom.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia Hels on Wheels

Three years ago whilst preparing to set out by bicycle from London to the Middle East I wrote to Saudi Tourism with questions about the dress code and if I – a solo female traveller – would be permitted to cycle freely within the country.

The reply was astonishing;

you don’t need to wear an abaya, as long as you wear decent, loose-fitting clothes that cover your shoulders and knees, you are good to go!”

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia Hels on Wheels

So, how is it to travel by bicycle through a land in which women have been permitted to drive for fewer than 5 years?

The answer will surprise you as much as it did me.

If I’m not the actual first solo woman to ride the full distance across Saudi Arabia then I’m certainly amongst the initial few. Consequently, there is a certain amount of trailblazing.

I’ve been mistaken for a man more than a couple of times, even straight out asking my gender.

More routinely I’m quizzed about marital status, whether I have kids, and of course the perennial favourite; “aren’t you scared?”

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

It’s an odd paradox that Saudis while readily acknowledging how exceptionally safe their country is, are simultaneously obsessed with foreigners’ safety and well-being in their land. Often to the detriment of enjoyment; a point I’ll come back to.

But it has meant that sleeping inside the women’s prayer rooms of remote highway mosques had been positively encouraged, reinforced by instructions to lock myself, and bike, safely inside overnight.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

One of the many wonderful aspects of travel is having your preconceptions of a place turned upside down.

In Iran – a country I adore but in which I was harassed physically or verbally a couple of times a week – I received many well-meaning warnings about travelling alone in the Middle East.

Arab men it seems, have the reputation of being disrespectful – dangerous even – towards Western women. While nowhere is 100% safe and we should always exercise proper caution, I would like to set the record straight.

Since arriving in this part of the Arab world from Iran I’ve felt very comfortable wild camping just about anywhere.

The few times I’ve been bothered by unwanted male attention, it has been not by Arab men, but by one or two of the many South Asian migrant workers here.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

On one memorable occasion in Oman, a local man curious about the tent plonked down in his local wadi and drove over to investigate.

When I opened the fly revealing the occupant to be a solo woman he couldn’t get away fast enough, apologising profusely as he backed away.

In grocery stores where space is tight, there is no squeezing by the opposite sex. Men will exit the aisle to allow me to pass.

As a Brit precious of my personal space, I find this invisible forcefield around me very welcome. Male hands proffered to shake can be politely declined by putting my hand to my chest in greeting instead.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

Another pleasant advantage of being female in the Middle East is that I rarely have to wait in line. Government offices, banks and such often have separate entrances for women allowing me to skip past all the queuing men.

Since it’s rare to find many women transacting in these places I’m often able to proceed directly to the window whilst 20 men wait in the adjacent room.

“The feminist in me struggles to reconcile this welcome preferential treatment against my desire for gender equality.”
Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

Besides these female-only spaces, as a solo European woman, I am approached by both men and women welcoming me and asking about my journey.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

It is illegal in many parts of the Middle East including KSA to take and post photos without consent, but Saudis are also avid users of social media – Snapchat in particular – so my permission is often requested before my photo is taken.

(Men do still hang out of car windows Snapchatting me as they drive by, but mostly this filming is accompanied by a friendly wave or encouraging greeting).

Hels On YouTube

As well as being able to converse with men in public I am also welcomed into homes where I’m shown to the women’s section.

Here in the sanctuary of their living rooms, Saudi women are free to reveal their faces to me, an experience I assume is not open to male travellers.

I would argue therefore that to be a solo female traveller in 2023 Saudi Arabia is not restrictive but in fact advantageous.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

But, I can’t conclude by summarising my experience in the kingdom without mentioning the unsettling series of events resulting in my hiding in a hotel, hungry but too afraid to go out wishing I had the anonymity of a burka under which to hide.

A garment I’d considered until now to be oppressive and impractical; I now appreciate the burka and niqab’s liberating properties.
Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

This bizarre episode in my journey began with a spontaneous invitation to stay with a Saudi family but set in motion a two-week period of surveillance culminating in my riding precariously down the wrong side of a Jeddah highway to evade the latest in a series of men in unmarked vehicles inexplicably following me.

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia
A Saudi Family

Though I reported these cars to traffic cops, at military checkpoints, and by calling 911, I never got to fully understand who they were or why they were watching me.

As tourism grows in Saudi Arabia – (and Egyptian bike-unfriendly policies are already helping to increase touring cyclist numbers here) the kingdom will have to come to terms with more and more solo travellers, and for their sake.

I hope the Saudis will settle on a less invasive way to manage tourists’ safety.

Let’s charitably assume this surveillance was intended for my ‘protection’, in which case I’m left with an uncomfortable dichotomy.

Now in touristy Jordan and subject to harassment once more, I’m nostalgic for the time I was viewed as haram.

But if it is a choice between protected and safe or free and vulnerable, I choose liberty and the great privilege that is the freedom of independent travel.

Hels on Wheels
Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia

And, last but not the least, my cordial thanks to @steven The Cyclist Guy for inspiring this piece. I hope it will encourage more cyclists to bike-touring, and more bike-tourers into Saudi Arabia.

About Hels On Wheels

Solo Sister Cycles Saudi Arabia Hels on Wheels
Helen Dainty

Hels On Wheels aka Helen Dainty is a full-time global hobo cycling around the world on a budget of AU$ 100 per week. She left the UK in 2004 and has been living out of a backpack ever since.

After teaching English in South Korea and working in fundraising, she took up bicycle touring in Australia in 2016. Since then, she has completed ambitious tours across Australia, the UK, Europe, Middle East, and has logged over 72,924kms in 6 years.

She is now travelling through the Middle East. To get her real-time update you can follow her profile on Instagram or YouTube or Facebook.

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