CAIRO >> Wherever it is played, roller derby, the skating contact sport that is enjoying a global revival powered by women, prides itself on a quirky subculture and jokey jargon — strange outfits, bawdy nicknames and players who wear makeup.
In Egypt, they give it an archaeological twist.
Novices are called “mummies”; players of intermediate skill are known as “Cleopatras”; and those with six months training under their belt — who have paid their dues in bruises — graduate to “Cairoller,” a full member of Egypt’s only roller derby club.
They practice, twice a week, under the floodlights of an outdoor handball court at the Cairo International Stadium, honing their skills in the essential aspects of the sport — moving fast, with dexterity, and barging opponents out of the way. A lot like daily life, in other words.
“If you fall, you get up quickly,” said Reem El Desouky, 29, a copywriter who goes by the moniker Lady Macdeath. “If you get hit, you absorb it and move it. These are things you carry into your everyday life. It toughens you up a bit.”
One problem of daily life for women here is endemic sexual harassment. A recent survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation rated Cairo as the most dangerous megacity for women in the world. London was ranked as the most friendly toward women, followed by Tokyo and Paris. As a wave of #metoo claims washed across the globe in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, an Egyptian court sentenced a female television presenter to three years in jail for speaking on her show about pregnancy outside marriage.
The Cairollers, a mixture of students and professional women in their 20s and 30s, say roller derby’s bump and tumble help unleash their frustrations, and offer a sense of empowerment — sisterhood, even a little swagger. It’s also simply a way to purge the stresses of living in a cramped, polluted megalopolis of 24 million people.
Nada el Masri, 23, a customer service representative in a bank, deals with impatient, loud customers all day long. “I have to be pleasant and smile,” she said. “So on a good day I’ll come here, play for two hours, and it all goes away.”
Roller derby, which started in the United States in the 1930s, has surged in popularity in the past 15 years or so. In the Middle East, teams have sprung up in Cairo, Beirut, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Some Cairollers learned of the sport through “Whip It,” a Hollywood movie from 2009 about a rebellious young woman who breaks the shackles of her conservative upbringing by joining a rowdy roller derby team.
The Cairo players might identify with that. Many of them wear headscarves tucked under their helmets, in deference to religious sensibilities. A number are married; others live at home with their parents. One 34-year-old player has three children, the eldest of whom is 12. Several are former ballerinas.
Yet they have grown to relish the bangs and bruises of the sport, even the frequent injuries. Just about every player has a story of a sprained ankle, a bloodied knee or a knocked-out tooth. Bruises, known as “derby kisses,” are a badge of pride.
“I like bruises,” said Sumer Abdelnasser, 26, a television scriptwriter. “They made me more comfortable with my body, more confident with contact.”
Two American teachers at an international school founded the team in 2012, holding the first practice sessions in a school parking lot. It was a time of heady change in Egypt. A year earlier, at the height of the Arab Spring, young Egyptians had massed in Tahrir Square to press for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, their president of almost 30 years.
Emboldened by the revolution, young Egyptians embraced new forms of cultural expression, biting political satire and unconventional sports like roller derby. Today, the bravura spirit of change has dissipated under the harsh rule of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose government has jailed thousands of opponents, arrested gay people and imprisoned young Egyptians for posting the wrong thing on Facebook.
“Our dreams are down,” Abdelnasser said. “Since 2011 we’re in a great depression. Nothing changes. We’re stuck.”
But roller derby endures, driven in part by a sense of warm camaraderie between players. They gather for juice after training or hold pizza parties. Earlier this month, they went sandboarding on the steep dunes around Fayoum, an oasis south of Cairo. Close buddies call each other “derby wives.”
“There’s a sisterhood that resonates across the world,” El Desouky said. “We see each other. We stay with each other.”
What they lack are opponents.
There are other new contact sports for women in Egypt. A national women’s rugby team was established in 2015, and a women’s dodge ball team recently won a major African tournament. But roller derby has been constrained by several factors, including cost.
A full set of helmet, kneepads and skates runs hundreds of dollars, and the sudden devaluation of the Egyptian pound last year effectively doubled the price.
They had to improvise. Players take training advice from tutorials on YouTube, and donations of secondhand gear from teams in the United States. Their dream is to start a competitive league in Egypt. They are looking for a sponsor.
Earlier this year the Cairollers played their first competitive games against visiting women’s teams from Abu Dhabi and Marseilles, France. In the days before her game, El Desouky was sick with anxiety, she said.
But once the starting whistle sounded, her worries vanished. “It’s was really, really awesome,” she said. “I can’t wait to do it again.”