BEIRUT: Thousands of women in Lebanon are turning to motorcycles for transport as a means to cut costs, with many saying that social stigmas are disappearing amid the country’s worsening economic crisis.
Many Lebanese people no longer have the financial means to drive a car, instead opting for motorcycles to withstand the economic crisis.
Motorcycle sales make up about 50 percent of the consumer vehicle market, according to car dealerships in Lebanon.
Buying and driving motorcycles is no longer limited to young men, delivery workers, university students and professionals who need to move quickly on the roads to reach their workplace at the lowest possible cost.
Now, Lebanese women — in their 20s, 30s and 40s — are skillfully driving motorcycles around the country, with some even converting their bikes into taxis.
The economic crisis has placed a great burden on Lebanese women. Some have turned to traditionally male professions to find an income, including selling vegetables in pickup trucks, working in butcher shops, at gas stations, in car repairs and as taxi drivers.
Lebanon’s civil war previously revolutionized women’s role in the workplace, with many entering professions for the first time, such as journalism, search and rescue, civil engineering and even frontline military positions.
Before the economic crisis, some Lebanese women joined Harley-Davidson luxury motorcycle clubs, took part in car races and competed in mountain climbing competitions.
They became a source of inspiration for others.
Moni, 29, an engineer, said that she loves to drive motorcycles after being taught by her brothers.
“When the fuel crisis began, I forgot about my car and only used it when necessary. Instead, I opted for a motorcycle, as it is less expensive to fill its tank and it helps me avoid Beirut’s traffic jams during the day,” she said.
“I discovered I was not the only woman who drives a motorcycle, which encouraged me to continue driving it,” she said.
Moni added: “During the 2019 protests, riding a motorcycle was a way to express rejection of everything traditional and oppressing us, the younger generation, starting with the ruling authority to the smallest thing that controlled our lives, as women.”
However, she added that her family initially rejected her wishes to ride a motorcycle.
“They feared for my safety in a chaotic environment, but during and after the protests, and after the Beirut port explosion, their view changed, and they saw how women had an influential voice, and they accepted the idea because they believed in the necessity to change the prevailing reality,” Moni said.
One security source told Arab News that the increase in motorcycles on Lebanese streets has led to a surge in violations.
“The majority do not wear helmets, and they violate traffic laws, so accidents increase, and motorcycle drivers could end up dead because of this,” they said.
But women riders often take greater care on the roads and avoid exposing themselves to harm, the source added.
According to Information International — a Beirut-based research consultancy firm — 29,102 motorcycles were imported to Lebanon in 2021.
The number increased to 47,077 by the end of July 2022. A total of 177,388 motorcycles were imported between 2017 and 2022.
There are about 289,000 officially registered motorcycles in the country.
It is estimated that about the same amount are unregistered, but there are no official figures.
Enaam Halawi, 45, learned how to ride a motorcycle after he husband encouraged and taught her.
Halawi and her husband own a shop that sells auto parts, and she started riding her motorcycle within the area where she lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
“I encountered about five women riding motorcycles, so I decided to be the sixth,” she said.
Halawi, who wears a veil and is a grandmother, has been riding motorcycles for 18 months.
“I was initially afraid of being judged and bullied. But when I put my helmet on, I shut out all the embarrassment I could ever feel. With time, I became a more confident driver and started driving outside my neighborhood,” she added.
“The motorcycle made my life easier. The journey that requires an hour and a quarter by car does not take more than five minutes on the bike.”
“Bullying from other drivers turned into respect, and they would give us priority to pass without harassment. Everyone is suffering under the economic crisis, so everyone is accepting other people’s coping mechanism,” she said.
After first riding a modest motorcycle, Halawi later exchanged it for her son’s big bike after he left Lebanon to work abroad.
“I respect myself and know what I need from riding a motorcycle. I overcame my fears because fear causes accidents. Driving a motorcycle requires courage and quick decision-making,” she said.
Rana Karzi, 40, who is married and has two sons, has been riding motorcycles since 2016.
“My brother taught me how to ride a motorcycle. I bought my first bike because I could not afford to buy a car and I wanted to avoid the harassment I would encounter by taking taxis all the time,” she said.
Karzi lives in one of Beirut’s most popular neighborhoods, Tarik Al-Jadida.
“When I rode the bike for the first time, I got a lot of strange looks because I was breaking tradition. But with time, people got used to seeing me and started showing me respect.”
“Other drivers used to be surprised, but now they encourage me; they pop their heads out of their cars and shout ‘Bravo!’”
Karzi became so confident riding motorcycles and women in her entourage became dependent on her for their transportation, so she decided to convert the bike into a taxi.
She promoted her new business on social media to transport women within Beirut during the day, avoiding night rides because of the security situation.
During the protests, many women would ask Karzi for a ride home from Martyrs’ Square or to their workplaces, including female doctors and health workers, especially since many roads were closed.
In winter, she attaches a rain tent to her motorcycle to protect herself and her clients.
Karzi later decided to start teaching young women how to ride motorcycles and has so far taught 20 people. “But not everyone is qualified to drive motorcycles,” she added.
“Still, the turnout exceeded my expectations.”