Saudi horse trainer sees hope for women
Dana al-Gosaibi’s passion for horses has been hard to pursue in Saudi Arabia, where conservatives resist women’s involvement in sport.
But, the Islamic kingdom’s tentative advancement of women’s rights has given the Saudi horse trainer hope that one day she might be able to realise her dream of starting her own business.
“There is this weird belief that a woman shouldn’t ride a horse,” Gosaibi said, especially if she’s not yet married as “she might lose her virginity”.
“It’s amazing how a lot of people believe these things,” she said ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow.
Herself unmarried, Gosaibi, 35, dreams of opening her own stables to focus on “a more gentle” way of training horses than the standard approach in the maledominated kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women.
But, change was under way, said Gosaibi, who returned to Saudi Arabia four years ago after more than a decade living abroad.
“I came back and I saw all these women” working as cashiers, in sales and in offices, Gosaibi said.
Since last year, a government plan for social and economic reforms has given more impetus to this trend.
The government wants more women in the workforce as part of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the country’s oil-based economy, and is trying to expand sports opportunities for everyone.
Saudi Arabia last year appointed a princess to oversee women’s sports in the conservative kingdom.
Princess Reema bint Bandar alSaud last month said authorities would begin granting licences for women-only gyms.
“Even (in) sport, they’re really encouraging women, which is a very new thing,” Gosaibi said, taking heart that the change heralded a more favourable climate for starting her business.
But, the horse trainer, who learnt her skills in Britain and the United States, said she had faced resistance — “especially with my approach” to the animals.
Horses have been central to Saudi life for centuries, and the kingdom is famed for its strong desert-bred Arabians from which the racing thoroughbreds are descended.
The traditional way of training horses in Saudi Arabia required “a lot of force”, including spurs and whips, she said.
But, Gosaibi prefers to take her time, observing the animal and learning to understand the way it thinks until she “becomes part of the horse’s herd”.
“You need to establish a relationship and understanding because the horse needs to trust you,” she said.
If she were a man, her unorthodox approach would be taken more seriously, she feels.
Many Saudi women were now taking riding lessons, Gosaibi said, “but it’s so much more difficult for a woman”, with social norms seeking to keep them out of the public eye.
Tradition requires women to cover themselves when outside the home, and unrelated men and women are usually segregated in public places.
Women need permission from a male guardian to travel or study, and Saudi Arabia is the world’s only country that does not allow women to drive.
An entrenched system of male domination made change difficult, Gosaibi said, but progress was happening nonetheless.
“You can’t be stuck forever in these old ways of thinking. Women are becoming stronger and they have a voice.”
Dana al-Gosaibi with her horses during a training session in Jeddah.