Roller derby is a female-dominated sport where both the blades and the punches roll. Over the past three years, a group of Egyptian women have become aficionados hardcore fans of the sport. But in a country where many women face harassment on a daily basis, roller derby is much more than just a game.
Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams skating around an oval track. Each team is made up of five players, one of whom is known as the “jammer.” When the match starts, the two teams take off round the track in one unified pack. The two jammers start behind everyone else and score points by overtaking members of the other team. It’s up to each team to try to help its own jammer to move forward and hinder the other team’s jammer. Roller derby is also known for its flamboyancy: the players often wear fantastical, costume-like uniforms and go by fanciful pseudonyms like wrestlers.
The sport was invented in the 1930s in the United States, and there are now hundreds of leagues in the world, most in Anglophone countries. There are only two roller derby leagues in the Arab world: one in the United Arab Emirates and the "CaiRollers" in Egypt.
"People would stop their cars to whistle at us or yell out inappropriate comments"
The idea to create this club came from two American women who also taught at the international high school and who had already played in the United States and London. Roller derby immediately appealed to me because, when I was a teenager, I loved roller skating and this was a unique opportunity to rediscover my passion.
I think that this sport appeals to women in particular because it was created for them. Most other contact sports began as men’s games and then were adapted for women.
This photo was taken in the Olympic Center in Maadi in July 2014 and posted on the CaiRollers Facebook page.
The violence that’s part of this sport doesn’t fit with people’s stereotypical image of women, especially women in an Arab country. When they exercise, Egyptian women tend to do something like aerobics, yoga or zumba in a studio or gym. Roller derby is different: players fall down and get bruised and they push and get pushed. I love the challenge of showing that you can get up and continue to play even after you’ve been knocked down.
CaiRollers players train in the Zamalek neighbourhood of Cairo. Photo posted on Facebook.
In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. I still remember our first practices, back in 2011. We’d meet in the evening to train at the Al-Gazira sports center, which was popular with guys playing football and basketball. People would stare at us and make fun of us. They mocked how we dressed and they’d laugh when we fell down, without trying to understand the game at all.
Later, we started to play outside because roller skates can destroy wooden gym floors. People would stop their cars to whistle at us or yell out inappropriate comments. It was only after our 4th or 5th practice that people began to show interest in the game and ask us about the rules.“Roller derby also promotes a spirit of solidarity”
We had to show real perseverance to follow our passion for roller derby and I think that changed us all. A few months after we first formed our team, I went to protest on Tahrir Square. Most people have heard about all of the instances of sexual assault and rape that took place there, often hidden in the chaos of the crowd.
When I went to Tahrir that time, I felt much for confident because I knew that I could defend myself against assault – I knew how to push someone down and escape from a group. Later, I even joined the anti-harassment brigades that started patrolling the protests. Roller derby helps women gain confidence in a society plagued by harassment of women. It’s not just a sport.
Photo published on CaiRollers' Facebook page.
Roller derby also promotes a spirit of solidarity. It’s expensive to buy the necessary equipment in Egypt so in order to kit out the entire team, the girls who have the means to travel abroad, like me, brought back enough for everyone.
Some of the international roller derby clubs helped us as well. This spirit of helping each other out also promotes diversity. At first, most of the players came from privileged backgrounds, but now, there are about 20 of us and we come from diverse backgrounds. Some of the players had never skated before and didn’t have the means to buy skates. Other team members were ready to help out.