Civil upheavals in Egypt have plunged the country into chaos. Attacks on women are commonplace — but, astonishingly, female skaters have taken to their wheels in defiance. Katie Glass reports from Cairo
On an outdoor court with pockmarked walls in southern Cairo, 13 girls on neon roller-skates play tag. They zip around in the dusty heat, occasionally skidding to the floor on their kneepads, laughing. Most are covered up, head to toe: they wear coloured tights, skirts layered over leggings, wool dresses and long shirts under CaiRollers T-shirts emblazoned with an image of the Egyptian goddess Isis on skates. Some wear the hijab. Behind them, the crazy car horns of Cairo blare and the wail of the Islamic call to prayer begins.
We have just driven to practice through Tahrir Square — still bordered by towering metal gates bristling with spikes, the residue of the protests and bloody military crackdowns that have dominated life in the Egyptian capital since the revolution of 2011 — and down the Corniche, Cairo’s downtown embankment, keeping our cameras hidden as we passed police checkpoints, parked tanks and soldiers wielding guns. At a private, gated sports club in Maadi, a southern suburb, we found the CaiRollers, Egypt’s first roller-derby team.
An international hipster phenomenon, roller derby is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports, played throughout the US and Europe by tough girls in skimpy outfits, resembling anarchic cheerleaders on wheels — as portrayed by Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page in the 2009 film Whip It.
The peculiar thing about this aggressive, adrenaline-fuelled contact sport is that it is dominated by young women who embrace a kind of Girl Power feminism — something Angie Marie, a wiry American redhead in denim cut-offs, had in mind when she brought it to Cairo in her suitcase in September 2011, eight months after the revolution that brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak.
“I could only pack two cases, but I brought my full roller-derby kit,” grins the 34-year-old, who came to Cairo as a teacher at the American International School in Egypt. “Roller derby empowered me,” she says. “It made sense this could be something that could also happen in Cairo.” Formerly a player with the London-based Rollergirls, Angie founded CaiRollers with five others, including Shaneikiah Bickham, 28, an American expat, and Susan Nour, a 34-year-old Egyptian. Today, the team they created consists entirely of local girls.
On the spectator benches, Susan is explaining the rules of roller derby, in Arabic, to six eager recruits. The gist of it is this: two teams of five — four “blockers” and a “jammer”, who “scores” by outskating the opposition blockers — spend the game lapping each other on a circuit track at high speed, as many times as possible. You’re allowed to barge your opponent off track. It’s skating on steroids.
Roller derby emerged in America during the Great Depression, then slipped into obscurity. It’s now enjoying a surprise resurgence: in 2006, there were 50 amateur roller-derby leagues, all of them in North America. Today, 1,515 leagues have sprung up worldwide, 107 in Britain. South Korea has two, as does China, and Dubai has one. The CaiRollers are Egypt’s first team — and the only one in the world to have started during a revolution.