DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — A Qatari woman who created ripples by appearing on television without a headscarf has broken new ground as a jockey in the conservative Gulf country, where men usually hold the reins.
Maryam al-Subaiey has defied expectation and tradition — as well as any fear of controversy — to pursue her “dream” of racing horses, which even a nasty fall this year could not crush.
“I don’t have to do things that society expects from me as a woman,” Subaiey, 31, told AFP.
“I am expected to be a businesswoman and eventually get married and have kids.”
She adds: “But being a female athlete, this is not something that is considered Qatari.
“It’s just not expected. It’s very different.”
Racing against tradition
Subaiey’s dream came true on February 24 at Qatar’s pastoral Racing and Equestrian Club, a green oasis on the western fringes of the capital Doha.
There, on the undercard of an eight-race meeting, she took to the track for the very first time.
Subaiey didn’t win — she finished eleventh out of 14 runners in the “Thoroughbred Handicap” on her mount “Comedy Night.”
But more notable than her final position was the fact she competed at all.
Women have raced before in Qatar — indeed there was another non-Qatari female jockey in the same handicap and there are local media reports dating back to 2008 about a 14-year-old amateur riding at the equestrian club.
But although records are not conclusive, officials told AFP that Subaiey was the first ever Qatari female jockey to take part in such a ranking event.
“I still can’t believe that I am here,” she said immediately afterwards.
“The importance of my presence here isn’t just the fact that I am the first female Qatari jockey — I am here for all female Qataris and all female Khaleejis,” she said, referring to women from the Gulf.
Her groundbreaking ride also took many in attendance by surprise.
“To be honest, I didn’t think there were female jockeys here,” said one Western racegoer.
Subaiey is well-known among some Qataris.
Last year, she appeared on France 24 Arabic television to discuss how Qatari women view their role in society.
There was a backlash though as she appeared on screen not wearing a headscarf.
One online commenter called her “a bad example” for Qatari women.
Another more vehement poster wrote: “Education is no good if it results in disobeying God’s orders.”
Subaiey — speaking at the racetrack without a headscarf — responded simply: “I have the freedom to choose what and what not to wear.”
Subaiey’s gallop into history began back in August 2014 during what she described as a “very difficult time in my life.”
She had lost her job as a video director for a local television station and wanted a change of direction.
Although she had ridden horses as a child she had no experience as a jockey.
But she said: “This is something I wanted to do for a very long time. I love horses and I thought, why not?”
One of those why nots was social convention in Qatar.
Being a female jockey was seen by some as “not prestigious” in such a traditional society, admitted Subaiey, who wears the same style of racing silks to compete in as her male jockey counterparts.
But although her desire to become a jockey may have raised a few eyebrows, Subaiey said she has the support of her family, who had no prior involvement in the horse racing world, and many compatriots — “even Qatari men.”
“All I hear is positive comments,” she added.
“A lot of young girls tell me that I inspire them. That’s what I want to do.”
Another “why not” would be the number of female sports stars in Qatar.
Despite using sport to brand itself globally, including in horse racing where Qatar sponsors major events in France and Britain including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Goodwood Festival, there are few homegrown female sports stars.
Qatar took just two female athletes to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, even fewer than the four in London in 2012, the first time Qatar had taken female competitors to the Games.
As part of her training to become a jockey, Subaiey has trained with noted British jockey Steve Smith Eccles at his school in the British “racing capital,” Newmarket.
She was training hard for up to six hours a day.
However, disaster struck in her second race back home in March.
She fell from her horse, sustaining severe injuries, including a double fracture to her pelvis.
“My family was so devastated, but they know I am going to go back to racing. They know I am stubborn and they know I can never say no,” she said.
Subaiey plans to get back in the saddle and continue her training in Newmarket in October.
“If anything, more than ever before, I have something to prove.”