Saudi horse trainer sees hope for women

New Straits Times - - World -

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.

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