Dakar’s women drivers helping their Saudi sisters
They may be few in number but the women who have come to Saudi Arabia to race their vehicles across the sands in this year’s Dakar Rally are making their voices heard.
Many of the 13 women, from Europe, South Africa and South America, who started the race in Jeddah on Sunday feel the need to speak out for their Saudi sisters.
“I am sure it is positive to show everyone here that women can be competitive and strong and I am happy to represent women here,” said 34-year-old Spanish biker Laia Sanz, who is taking part in the rally for the 10th time.
The organisers sparked controversy by switching the race from South America to Saudi, which is regularly accused of human rights abuses and the suppression of dissenting voices, including feminist activists.
“It was surprising but I think it’s a good thing that we are here in the end,” said Sanz.
Saudi Arabia has started a program of economic and social reform, at the instigation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Italian driver Camelia Liparoti, who is taking part in her 12th Dakar, agrees with Sanz.
“We are fortunate to be female athletes coming (to Saudi Arabia) to compete and able to demonstrate that there are women who do things in a man’s world,” the 51-year-old with the pink Side-by-Side Vehicle told AFP.
Saudi authorities have indicated their desire to open up society by investing massively in staging sporting, cultural and entertainment events.
In recent months, concerts and sports competitions in front of mixed audiences have multiplied in Riyadh and Jeddah.
In October, Riyadh hosted Saudi Arabia’s first female wrestling match when Natalya, a Canadian, took on Lacey Evans, an American.