On a roll: skater girls

Roller derby and skateboarding are both rebellious, young sports with their roots in American alternative culture; now, they’re helping promote health and education in the Middle East and North Africa

Last year, not long after Egypt’s new President was sworn in, a group of women in Cairo swept the debris off a rooftop, strapped on protective padding and 50s-style roller skates, and held the first training session for Cairollers, North Africa’s first roller derby league.

They’d already been shooed out of a basketball court in a public park, but they were determined to skate, and adrenaline was running high.

Since it was revived in Austin, Texas a decade ago, roller derby has gone viral worldwide, with teams everywhere from Argentina to Korea. It’s a full contact team sport played on an oval track: players must race around each other, shoulder-barging and hip-checking as they go, in order to score points. There are many ways in which derby is distinctive: it’s dominated by women, players often adopt colourful nicknames, and, most importantly, the clubs are run democratically by the skaters themselves.

“It was the perfect time for it,” says Angie Malone-Kaster, aka Indie Hannah: an Indianapolis transplant who had played roller derby in London before moving to Cairo to teach. “A new Egypt, a new sport.” The Cairollers now train twice weekly, have around 20 permanent members, and are preparing for their first public game.

“It has certainly changed my life for the better,” says Susan Nour, who works for an NGO during the day and skates under the name NoFearTeti. “It energizes me, relieves my stress and gives me something to look forward to all week. I’ve made new friends, discovered that my body can do things I didn’t think it could do.”
There are initiatives across the globe to promote community and health through sport, but roller derby is aimed specifically at adult women, a group who often don’t find the time, the encouragement or the role models to get involved in team games.
That’s true in Dubai, as well as Cairo, and a few months after that first Cairollers practice, Dubai Roller Derby held their first training session. Their 30 or so members now skate twice a week at the Meydan Tennis Academy. The club’s president, Dani Connell, was a former skater for Edinburgh’s Auld Reekie Roller Girls. “It gave me a sense of belonging and helped me to get fit,” she says of the sport. “Since I started skating again I have lost weight, improved my health and my confidence grows by the day.”

Accessible to all

Confidence building is one of the aims of another organisation that takes a rebellious American subculture and transplants it to the Middle East. Skateistan was founded in 2007 when an Australian skateboarder called Oliver Percovich visited Afghanistan with his board and started teaching local kids to skate. He ended up starting an NGO and raising money to build a vast indoor skate park, training up kids as instructors.
Skateistan is now a huge international organisation, and at its Kabul HQ, kids are taught about the environment, human rights, and local politics in a classroom after they’re done with their ollies and kickflips. Like roller derby, skateboarding can be used as a way of breaking down barriers. “Kids may be different,” Percovich told a reporter for the Financial Times recently, “but they all fall off a skateboard the same way.”
The fact that skateboarding was unheard of in Kabul also made it accessible to girls as well as boys. Unlike football, it wasn’t seen as a male-only domain, and everyone was starting from scratch, so it wasn’t embarrassing to give it a go. Roller derby, too, attracts a diverse range of women, including those who never considered themselves athletic before. It doesn’t have the associations with school that a lot of traditional girls’ sports have, and you don’t need to have been playing since you were tiny to become any good.
If confidence is a recurring theme among both derby players and Skateistan members, another is resilience. “Derby helped me overcome certain fears I might have had,” says Susan Nour. “Once you fall hard and get back up, or once you take a hit and keep on skating, you realize that a lot of things you fear are much worse in your head than in reality.”