Next up in our series on the Future of Derby is another geographical region where the growth and development of the sport is pushing new boundaries: North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt’s CaiRollers swept to some fame a few years ago when they were first founded, getting attention in some major newspapers, but since then other leagues have begun emerging, in the UAE and in Lebanon…
The Middle-East has, perhaps, particular challenges for Roller Derby, as it (and Asia) have less Western ideas of women and sports in popular culture. As Derby develops into a truly International sport, encountering and adapting to non-Western cultural ideals will be a key test of the sport and its leadership (as will the ability to decentralise the core of the sport itself).
We talked to all three Middle-Eastern leagues we are aware of, to find out how they see the sport developing in their region. Dubai Roller Derby‘s The Killer Purple answered questions for them, while the CaiRollers had their Nofearteti respond.
Roller Derby Beirut is currently just a work in progress, and their founder provided us with the following statement: Women of the Middle East face challenges that cannot compare in any way to the reality we know where I live, in the cold Northern Copenhagen. I’ve been following the amazing ladies of the CaiRollers, and the way Roller Derby enables them to claim their space in the public sphere. This is not about religion, Orientalism or naïve good-doing; it’s about sharing our amazing sport and community with women around the world. It makes me happy and proud to feel the derby community reach out and help in any way they are able to; that’s why Derby is so unique. I hope the ladies of Beirut will find this together whilst turning left.
[You can help Roller Derby Beirut with donations at the World Cup or otherwise via this event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/599390206837488/ ]
Although Roller Derby in Dubai (and the U.A.E. in general) is young, have you considered a national team submission for the next World Cup?
Definitely. We would definitely consider submitting a National Team, and have already discussed it. The issue, however, is that few of our skaters, if any, are from Dubai/the U.A.E. This is not because we have any kind of restrictive or exclusionary policies but because of the U.A.E.’s demographics. Roughly 80% of the population is expatriate. Local women also tend to be from more protective family backgrounds. Athletic local women are certainly the exception to the rule although this is slowly changing. As it stands, the World Cup’s eligibility rules need to be modified to be able to include places like the U.A.E., Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar, Egypt, etc. and our particular social make-up.
The Middle-East has perhaps unique problems for the growth of derby, but some issues are common to leagues across the World. What have been your issues to date with growing and spreading derby across the U.A.E?
Possibly the primary factor that limits the growth of derby in Dubai & the U.A.E. is the transient nature of the population. Most people come here early on in their careers, at a time when their lives are changing rapidly, stay for a few years to benefit from the tax-free laws, and then return to their native countries to establish more permanent homes. While they’re here, they take advantage of Dubai’s proximity and ease of access to many tourist destinations, and travel frequently. This constant turnover of people, and serial absence of skaters makes it difficult to plot and monitor progress of an individual skater, and of the league. Expatriates also tend to take long breaks from work in the summer to escape the scorching, draining temperatures. This discontinuity certainly slows our progress.
Another factor that has severely hampered our growth is the lack of infrastructure to support us. At the peak of the quad skate fashion, the U.A.E. was little more than a desert, and as such, has no old roller rinks, no old skates, no former wheely-disco-divas. What we do have is an indoor ski slope, which has that excessive appeal that Dubai prides itself on. The roller derby “story” of grassroots, female empowerment, alternative living, community driven success is not one that might appeal to decision-makers here – people that have the money, resources, and permits to build. This is Eden for big business-big government. Unless a direct monetary advantage can be leveraged, the project is dead in the water.
Culture probably does play a significant factor as the athletic development of girls and women is considered secondary to their moral well-being. Athletic facilities that women use are primarily built for men. We know that many derby leagues began in parking lots, etc. but try skating in 99% humidity, and 50°C.
Recently, finding a decent sports hall, with skateable flooring, has given our league a much-needed boost. With a consistent practice location and times, we’ve gained a good reputation, garnered a lot of media attention, and gotten a lot of new skaters!
Do you have any hopes for development in the Derby community which would make the sport more successful in the Middle East, and Dubai in particular?
3) To be perfectly honest, the only way in which we hope derby develops is in being able to include us to play in the World Cup. It could be a concern that as the sport grows, people jump on the bandwagon and beat the horses. Right now, We like that there isn’t a fat-cat commission setting rules for me to make them money. We like that derby isn’t about money. We like that we’ve got an international sk8rhood. We like that we’re fierce and I like that we have to fight for our right to party.
The CaiRollers have been growing for about 2 years now. What challenges (and support/unexpectedly easy things) have you encountered on the way? (Are any unique to Egypt?)
The challenges today remain similar to what they were when we first started:
1) the gear is not available in Egypt and it’s not easy to get it shipped here without paying hefty fines and/or guaranteeing that something will get lost along the way.
2) Practice locations – it’s difficult to find a suitable surface for us to play on, and when we do it’s either too expensive. We don’t have any sponsors yet and we pay for all practice venues out of dues which we try to keep to a reasonable amount so that players from all walks of life can play.
3) Drumming up awareness of what derby us and support and interest from women to play. In addition to which many of our founding players were expats, so in our second year we lost about 80% of the team and had to kind of start from scratch. However, we have managed to build a more local base and now the team is majority Egyptians or women who are living in Egypt for the long term, so turnover won’t be as high.
The unexpectedly easy and awesome thing which has helped with all of the above challenges is the international support that we have received. So many teams from all over the world have supported us by talking us up, donating a ton of gear and even making financial donations to our paypal account. the amount of derby love that has come our way from ALL over the world has been overwhelming and incredible. At the end of our 1st birthday slideshow we had such a long list of leagues to thank and send out love to and that was an amazing thing.
Has the English-language focus of derby, especially with rules + best practice, caused any problems?
Yes, it has caused some issues in terms of teaching our own players the rules, but also in terms of drumming up interest in the game. There is no direct translation for the word Jammer in Arabic. How do we explain roller derby without being able to explain what a jammer is? [In almost all other languages, Jammer remains untranslated, or becomes something like “star” in the destination language – Ed] But we’ve made do. Recently we’ve been talking about translating our fresh meat package into Arabic. We’ve got parts of it translated now, but we want all the details to be available in Arabic so we can sort of be a resource for derby in Arabic.
If there is a World Cup in 2016/17, would you consider forming a Team Egypt? (Eligibility for national teams tends to be decided by nationality, not domicile.) Have you thought about this already?
We would definitely consider it but there’s a lot that would go into that consideration. We don’t have any sponsorship, though we’ve been trying to drum up some big name sponsors for a year now. We would need some serious sponsorship in order to be able to go, as many of the women on our team cannot afford to contribute much, if anything towards travel abroad. We would also like to have a couple of bootcamps and play a couple of international bouts if possible prior so that the World Cup is not our first time encountering that level of play. But as a pipe dream, it’s definitely something we’ve talked about from time to time.
As derby grows outside the “Western” cultures of North America and Western Europe, do you see any changes either being required to grow in those new areas, or being fed back into the community from those new cultures?
I don’t think there need to be any real, fundamental changes to the game of derby in order for it to grow, but there has to be perhaps a widening in the scope of what is meant by derby culture. We’ve been able to adapt the ‘badass’ tough chick image of derby to our situation here in Egypt. We’ve got Egyptian women from various social classes and religious backgrounds playing together, some are veiled, some are not. When the veiled women first showed an interest in derby some of them asked if it would be possible to play with their hijab. We of course told them that there is no requirement that they wear racy clothing or have tattoos or any of these other things that they might have picked up from some of the popular media around derby (The movie Whip It is shown on a regional satellite network quite often, and I think this is where a lot of people might be getting their ideas about derby…) In any case, we’ve adopted a very ‘come as you are’ attitude here, and I think we’ve done a good job of reconciling the different viewpoints of our players about what derby culture is and what it should be. So I guess, that’s just a long way of saying that I don’t think there need to be any drastic changes to derby in order for it to grow in new areas. I think each league will sort of naturally figure out what works best for them.