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.
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.”afp