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Crusading for equality on bikes

Women-only Ducati club in Malaysia revels in exhilaration of riding

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Published : 2015-03-17 20:25
Updated : 2015-03-17 20:25

Three cats. Four kids. A sprawling house in Subang Jaya, Selangor. Life for hijab-wearing suburban mum Nurulalis Aidil Akhbar seems ordinary ... until the weekend rolls around.

Come Saturdays and Sundays, the 40-year-old woman shimmies into leather, slips on a pair of Aviators and hops onto a bike that’s more than four times her weight and at least twice her size.
 
Nurulalis Aidil Akhbar poses with her bike. (The Star)

She’s now Kiki ― motorsports enthusiast, president of Desmodonna Malaysia, a women-only Ducati club, and a star on the racetracks. Tearing down the highway in a blaze of smoke, horsepower and oil, Kiki leaves Nurulalis behind. Her destination varies according to the whims of her gang ― one day, it could be Port Dickson, the next, Tanjung Malim (it doesn’t really matter when you’re having a good time).

“My friends and I would go there for breakfast and be back just in time to see our kids wake up,” she says, adding that her husband, who once had his own reservations about the sport, now joins in the fun.

Kiki’s rebellious streak grew from a woeful episode in her life, when she attended an interview with the country’s national carrier only to watch helplessly as they incinerated her dreams of becoming a pilot to ash.

She still recalls the moment with great clarity: “They said, sorry, we’re not ready to accept girls. And that was that.”

Armed with a useless degree in flying, Kiki felt frustrated. And very angry.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity however, she decided to take the advice of a good friend to heart: “He said, ‘you can’t change certain things, but that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to do the things that give you the drive in life.’”

Thanks to him, she got her first bike, a secondhand Honda CVR600F2, which she bought off a colleague for 20,000 ringgit ($5,413).

“I didn’t know how to ride a bike then. For the first month, I just sat around admiring it.”

Needless to say, Kiki was hooked the moment she revved the engine. Not only that, motorsports also proved to be an ideal hobby for a budding sports journalist.

That was in 1997. Since then, her appetite for excitement has grown exponentially, so much so that she also began racing competitively. When not at work, reporting live from the tracks for RTM, Kiki would be on it, fearlessly eyeing a podium finish.

“Circuit racing, autocross, gymkhana ... you name it, I’ve competed in it,” says Kiki, who outclassed her male opponents several times in rallies (since female competitors were a rarity back then, there was no women-only category).

Sponsorship soon began to pour in ― Kiki certainly is a marketer’s dream, with looks and an attitude to match her results.

At the end of the day, however, it’s the big bikes that gets her adrenaline coursing. For many avid riders, nothing could adequately describe the feeling one gets from gliding down the road, 1.5 meters off the ground with the sun shining and the warm wind blowing.

“It’s not the same as being in a car,” explains Kiki, now a proud owner of three motorcycles: a Triumph, a Vespa, and her favorite, a tricked-out Ducati Diavel with AL15 emblazoned on its front. “It’s a lot more exhilarating.”

Her eyes still sparkle when she recounts a particular ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on the formidable 1,000 Corners stretch. This 300-odd kilometer road, with its vertigo-inducing curves and sharp bends that slices through the bucolic Thai countryside, is among the nation’s biggest draw cards for thrill-seeking motorcyclists.

“It’s one of the craziest, most difficult things I’ve done,” says Kiki. “I went with a group of pro riders and it took us 12 days. By the sixth day, I was exhausted and ready to quit. But I pushed on anyway; to do that, you have to have willpower and discipline.”

Not everyone made it ― two men in Kiki’s group wound up in the hospital instead of the finish line.

With her petite frame and her eldest son now 20, Kiki makes an unlikely crusader for gender equity in her sport.

But four months ago, she founded Desmodonna Malaysia in an effort to promote riding ― especially safe riding ― among women.

Membership is automatic ― you become part of the group once you buy a Ducati ― but there are only 37 members throughout the country. For now, the club functions as an outlet for the girls to meet up regularly and share their passion.

“We talk about everything, from motorcycles to nail polish,” reveals Kiki.

Desmodonna isn’t unique. But while a number of clubs like it have mushroomed across Malaysia of late, female riders are still considered a novelty.

So what’s stopping Malaysian women from riding?

“My dad’s not happy with my hobby,” says 37-year-old Sophia Ahmad. Sophia, who became a Desmodonna member after splurging on a Ducati Monster, says she’s been fond of bikes since she was young.

But like so many women who are learning to ride in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, Sophia has confronted personal challenges, cultural expectations and societal stereotypes to embrace the freedom that comes with motorcycling.

She admits: “My older brother loves motorcycles too and my dad is fully supportive of his hobby, going so far as to buy him riding gears and stuff.”

When Sophia revealed that she, too, would like to ride, her father remarked, “Ladies don’t ride bikes.”

“My husband was shocked,” says Norcilla Omar, referring to the first time she expressed an interest in riding. The 42-year-old had been a “good pillion rider” all her life until recently.

She made a life-altering decision two years ago, after receiving an epiphany at a Harley Davidson gathering in Milwaukee.

“I was at the back of my husband, who was riding, when I saw two ladies on their bikes. It never occurred to me that I could ride in front, on my own bike, until then. Now I’m making up for lost time.”

Sadly, motorcycle riding has been wrongly stigmatized as a masculine activity that embodied power and aggression not just in Malaysia but in many other countries. Equally challenging were those thunderous machines, objects of awe and terror to women who fear they cannot handle all that metal.

And it doesn’t help that those who could are often viewed as tomboys or even hussies; however, Kiki, Sophia and Norcilla ― all mothers who take their roles as seriously as the next woman ― are living proof that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

As a result, many have encountered their fair share of harassment on the streets, ranging from harmless honks and waves to more intimidating road bullies.

The good news? This landscape is changing.

Owner of seven bikes Dui Redzuan says the public is increasingly accepting of female riders. An avid motorcyclist for the past 20 years ― “Everyone drove a Kancil to college; I was the only one with a Kawasaki Kips” ― Dui, whose husband doesn’t ride, says the fairer sex preferred to conceal themselves on the road to avoid attracting attention.

Nowadays, however, “the public is more respectful.”

“There are a lot of us now,” she says.

And according to “Shifting The Balance Of Power: Why More Women Are Riding Motorcycles And How That’s Driving Change,” from lifestyle blog Fix.com, women’s impact on this sport is evident in their entry into leadership positions in the industry. Take Maggie McNally-Bradshaw, an IT specialist for New York State, who, in February 2013, became the first woman to lead the American Motorcyclist Association board in the association’s 89-year history after being unanimously elected chair of the AMA board of directors.

Riding can be empowering; women are discovering that motorcycles can be a safe and enjoyable form of transportation and recreation, and that if they can master their bike, they can master anything.

“We’re conquering a machine that intimidates even some men,” Sophia points out matter-of-factly.

As such, several manufacturers, particularly the Japanese, have developed models that are lighter, easier to handle and more comfortable, with lower seats, smaller frames and prettier colors, to appeal to them.

The question then is not if, but when, Malaysian women will be able to muster up the courage to take over the handlebars. Kiki sums it up perfectly: “I think, these days, the only thing that’s preventing a girl from riding a bike is herself.”

Meanwhile, she’s already in the midst of planning for her next overland trip. “I want to do a ride with my husbands and kids,” says Kiki. “At the end of the day, we’re all women. And as a woman, when you experience something special, you want to share it with your family.”

By Louisa Lim

The Star