Motorcycle sidecar attracts women riders in Sana’a

Published on 14 August 2014 in Culture
Abdullah Al-Samei (writer), Aref Abdulmomen (photographer)

Abdullah Al-Samei


Aref Abdulmomen

Many women in Sana’a say the addition of a sidecar makes travelling by motorbike safer, more comfortable, quicker, and more socially acceptable than the normal two-wheeler.

Many women in Sana’a say the addition of a sidecar makes travelling by motorbike safer, more comfortable, quicker, and more socially acceptable than the normal two-wheeler.

Khaled Ameen, a motorcycle taxi driver in Sana'a, was surprised to see a woman waving for him to pull over, as it is unusual for women in Sana’a to travel by motorbike. He initially thought she was just going to inquire about directions or ask him a question, but the woman, in her 40s, asked Ameen for a ride.

Recently, Ameen witnessed an increasing number of female customers—a development which he links to the addition of a sidecar to his motorcycle, which allows women to rely on motorbikes without having to be uncomfortably close to a male stranger or to drive them themselves.  

The emergence of sidecars is directly linked to the government’s ban of motorbikes in Sana’a, which was implemented in December 2013 as a measure to reduce the number of assassinations in the capital—many of which had been carried out by armed men on motorcycles. Several motorcycle taxi drivers, who saw themselves bereft of their daily source of income, added sidecars to their motorbikes, thereby trying to skirt the ban. With a sidecar, so the argument goes, the vehicle in question resembles more of a Tuk-Tuk than a motorbike and can thus continue being used as a taxi.

While it remains unclear whether the ban is achieving any results in reducing Sana’a’s crime rate, it has impacted women’s practices in the capital.

According to Ameen, women are attracted to the new design of motorcycles, especially the covers which came with the addition of the sidecar to protect passengers from the sun and rain.

Fatima Abdulsalam, a housewife in Sana’a who recently began using motorcycle taxis, confirms Ameen’s observations, describing the sidecar as “safe and comfortable.”

While she used to be afraid of taking motorcycles, arguing that “they were not suitable for women,” she argues that the sidecar turned motorbikes into an acceptable means of transportation for women. Furthermore, “they are quick and can be used to avoid traffic.”  

Using motorcycles also has its economic advantages. “They are affordable, therefore I would like to encourage those who are poor and who rely on a limited income as well as women to try it, because it is fun.”

Wedad Al-Badwi, a rights activist at the Culture and Media Center in Sana’a, says the days of motorcycles being the domain of men are over.

In her opinion, the new motorcycle sidecars come close to the Tuk-Tuk and are thereby more socially acceptable for women. It may take time, however, until women fully accept and adopt motorcycle sidecars as a new means of transportation. After all, “it is due to [long established] traditions and customs that women in Sana’a are not used to riding motorcycles.”

So far, motorcycles have been a social taboo for women in Sana’a, explains Al-Badwi.

The social character of norms preventing women from riding motorcycles is also emphasized by Nassr Al-Salami, a professor of comparative Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Iman University in Sana’a. In his opinion, it is not Islam preventing women from riding on motorcycles. Instead, he says, it is due to traditions and customs that people refuse to accept women on motorcycles.

Different values in Hodeida and Hadramout

But, customs and traditions vary among Yemen’s governorates. While in Taiz and Ibb women on motorcycles are as rare and as little accepted as they are in Sana’a, women in governorates like Hodeida and Hadramout are often seen on motorcycles.  

In Hadramout the only requirement for women using motorcycles is that they are accompanied by a male relative who is driving, says Aref Abdulmomen, who studies journalism at Sana’a University but is originally from the region.

Nora Bakatheer, a student at Hadramout University, specifies that the male relative needs to be a “mahram,” an Arabic expression describing male relatives, such as brothers, fathers, or uncles, whose relationship with a woman makes it impossible to marry her.

As long as they are accompanied by a mahram, “women ride behind the motorcyclist without being criticized by anybody. People are used to [seeing that],” Abdulmomen says.

Many people in Hadramout—the largest of Yemen’s governorates—prefer motorcycles over cars to avoid traffic in some of the governorate’s congested streets. In fact, Abdulmomen said that motorcycles are the most popular means of transport in Wadi Hadramout, an area within the governorate, where almost every family owns one.

Bakatheer explains that it is hard for women not to rely on motorbikes due to the long distances within the sparsely populated and large governorate.

Contrary to Sana’a, women on motorcycles have become such a common sight in Hadramout that Bakatheer refers to the practice as “a tradition and a habit.” In fact, she explains that locals often prefer a woman to ride a motorbike as it protects her “from the harassment of ill-mannered individuals,” when compared to public transportation. Yet, Bakatheer points out that women in Hadramout are still a long way from being able to ride motorbikes alone “because the locals consider it a shameful act.”

Like in Hadramout, people in Hodeida are accustomed to women riding on motorbikes. Abdullah Al-Bora'i, a resident of Hodeida, said that women in the region frequently use motorbikes, riding directly behind the motorcyclist—even occasionally with men they are not related to.  

Balqees Ahmed Sameeh, from Hodeida governorate, confirms that she regularly rides a motorbike, sitting behind her husband, in order to go to the market, the coast, or to visit her family and friends. Sameeh clarified that society in Hodeida is generally accepting of women on motorcycles as long as they are accompanied by a mahram.