African Voices

The girls spearheading roller derby’s revival in Egypt

Story highlights

CaiRollers aim to get many Arab women playing roller derby

In January they hold the first international match in the Arab world

The game has been experiencing a resurgence globally

CNN  — 

After a busy working day, Rahma Diab makes her way to Cairo’s International stadium. Boots strapped, helmet fastened, mouth guard in place, she braces herself for the hits and knocks that will inevitably come.

The trick to minimizing unsightly bruises, “is to learn to fall in the right way. Even before we learn how to skate we learn how to fall,” laughs Diab, a 24-year-old research analyst.

Egypt is famous for many things, but roller derby isn’t one of them. Diab along with her fiercely competitive teammates known as the CaiRollers want to change this.

Just 25 girls make up the team created over four years ago – hardly enough for a sporting revolution – but the CaiRollers are focused towards a slow and steady track to derby hegemony.

They’ll be anchoring for a win in a competition against Abu Dhabi this month, and later in April, they’ll take on Marseilles’ league. Taking place at Cairo’s International stadium, both games will be the first significant derby matches within the Arab world.

“They are just friendly games but I think it might be something in the future,” says Diab. “Maybe we’ll have a small tournament … in this part of the world,” she adds.

Global comeback

Girls of the New York Chiefs roller derby team in May 1953.

Roller derby, mainly popular in the US, pits two teams against each other roller skating around a track. Points are scored when one player known as the ‘jammer’ overtakes opposing team members.

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Since its 2001 revival on a flat, rather than oval track, the game has been experiencing something of a resurgence globally, and even more so in the unlikeliest of capitals - Shanghai, Beijing, Johannesburg, Dubai, Seoul and Daegu in South Korea.

Its modern version dispenses with a lot of the traditionally associated violence, but is still a sport famous for player’s bruises, something Cairo’s team of skaters love.

“The more you feel confident while rolling the less you are going to hurt yourself,” says Diab.

She joined the women-only team three years ago, via a Facebook advert. “It’s not the thing that you expect from the culture and the Arab girl so it was very interesting to try that out,” recalls Diab. “No one had heard about the game before here in the region.”

The group has more than doubled in size since its formation in 2012 by two American teachers and is almost exclusively made up of Egyptian women.

Changing stereotypes

Challenging perceptions further, far from being students, the CaiRollers are mostly working women - teachers, social workers, engineers, architects, researchers, and even a pharmacist - all spend twice weekly evenings on the derby track.

“I have played sports all my life, but there’s something about being able to play such a rough and tumble game,” says Susan Nour, a teacher and one of CaiRoller’s founding players.

She adds: “There is aggression, there is hitting but there are also strict rules. There are social and psychological parts to the game.”

For Egyptian players however, it’s an expensive sport, gear has to be ordered from abroad, which incurs shipping costs.

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“You can spend between $100 to $200 on very basic skates and $300 to $400 on upgraded vinyl or leather skates so there are quite high initial costs,” explains Nour.

Equipment costs can quickly spiral to the total of an average month’s salary in Egypt. However, there is some reprieve for cash strapped enthusiasts – helmets and protective gear can be rented at a fraction of the price.

What keeps the women attached to the game are ideas around female camaraderie - a core theme of the sport. “We are not just friends on the track, we are also friends outside the track,” says Diab.

Skating, after revolution

The CaiRollers came into being at a time when things were changing at speed in Egypt notes Nour. Their first games were held after the Tahrir Square protests that eventually brought down Hosni Mubarak’s rule of almost 30 years. Many of the girls were part of the protests and derby, for them, embodied the spirit of female empowerment.

“We definitely felt like we were in some small way a part of history,” Nour says, “that created a real feeling of sisterhood among the founding players, and even now as the people on the league have come and gone, that sisterhood remains.”

For Diab, it’s also a crucial international network. She was hosted by Abu Dhabi’s crew of rollers during a trip to the United Arab Emirates.

“If you are a derby skater then all the rest of the [global] derby skaters are your sisters,” says Diab,”roller derby girls have this bond that stretches beyond borders.”

Her teammate, Nour agrees, “We’ve gotten so much support from roller derby leagues around the world in the form of gear donations, shout outs and just plain love. It’s truly a powerful and empowering sport.”