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CaiRoller team members warm up before a practice bout in late May. "In the beginning you might fall 20 to 30 times during a single practice. 'Picking yourself up off the floor' isn't just metaphorical anymore," co-founder Angie Turk said. "Then when you are stable enough, we all get to hit you as hard as we want and you become even stronger. First, mentally, then physically."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

The Saladin Citadel of Cairo, near the center of town.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab waits to catch the women's car on the Cairo metro, saying it's easier than facing any potential harassment from men. Diab is a member of Cairo's only roller derby team, CaiRollers.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab pours strawberry juice at her home in Cairo. She lives with her parents, who, she said, are supportive of her playing roller derby. "I don't see it as being open, I see it as being normal," she said.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab recently finished her bachelor's degree in statistics from Cairo University and has accepted a research position at the American University in Cairo. Diab spent a foreign exchange year in the United States at the University of Arkansas through the NESA UGrad (Near East and South Asia Undergraduate) program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. "I started to think differently when I was in the States," she said. "Before that, I wouldn't go out and try new things. Now I'm more open."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab leaves her parents' flat in the Shoubra district of Cairo to head to roller derby. Depending on which location practice is at, it can take her from 30 minutes to an hour to get there by taking a variation of the metro, a taxi and walking.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

CaiRollers was started in 2012 by two Americans, Angie Turk and Shanekia Bickham. Today the team has 22 members, only three of whom are expatriates from other countries.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Laila Baraka, whose derby name is Dr. Sol, tears off a piece of duct tape before practice. The tape is placed on the toes of skates to keep them from getting too damaged. None of the derby gear can be found within Egypt and must be imported.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

CaiRollers welcomes any woman older than 18 to try out for the team. No previous experience is needed. "It's a culture, a family, an empowerment game," co-founder Angie Turk said.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Elizabeth King, also known as Zoom Kalthoum, stretches before a practice bout in late May 2014. The team has two locations at Maadi club and El Tala'ah club, where they create a makeshift track for each practice twice a week.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Colleen Devlin, who calls herself Bella Cossity, and Elizabeth King, Zoom Kalthoum, dance together during practice to work on balance. Beyond them, Shimaa Samhan, Sheen the Machine, and Rahma Diab, Derbina, do the same.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Nouran El Kabbany, known as Minnie Mean, stretches before a practice bout in late May.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

"Other women have said they don't feel as afraid or timid on the streets or at protests. If they can get hit this hard and pick themselves back up, they can handle anything," CaiRollers co-founder Angie Turk said. "I think the women don't quite realize how tough they are, and this sport is like a mirror for that."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab attempts to keep Laila Baraka, the jammer from the opposing team, from passing her. In roller derby, points are scored when the jammer passes the pack of the opposite team.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Nouran El Kabbany, known as Minnie Mean, yells at teammates during a practice bout in late May.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab struggles within the pack to keep a jammer from getting through during practice in late May.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

A friend helps Aya Tullah Youssef, known as Pariza, left, to remove her face paint. "I love my community," Youssef said. "I'm so glad to be a part of this game, and we all have the same love of derby."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab rests after doing crunches during practice. "Derby is my baby," Diab said. "I get to have someplace where I go and feel free to do something that I really like."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab smokes shisha with a friend in Cairo in late May. "Girls in Egypt, in their daily lives, are not expected to be violent or aggressive," Diab said. "They are expected to be good mannered, but in roller derby, it's a rebellious sport."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab, right, talks with friend Basem Abuarab before a concert in Al Azhar Park in late May in Cairo. "Things are changing for girls, especially after the revolution," Diab said. "The revolution was not only political, it changed some of the social life aspects."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Christena Dowsett

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By Christena Dowsett

Rahma Diab waits for the Cairo metro train to arrive. When it does, she chooses to ride in a car designated for women. She says that is easier than facing any potential harassment from men. Her hijab neatly covers her head as the metro slows to a stop. The women surrounding her in the car seem not to notice her extra bag. Inside, she has tucked her roller derby attire. Elbow and knee pads, wrist guards, skates and a helmet. She wears a big smile to match. “Girls in Egypt, in their daily lives, are not expected to be violent or aggressive,” the 22-year-old said. “They are expected to be good mannered … but in roller derby, it’s a rebellious sport.”

Two Americans, Angie Turk and Shanekia Bickham, founded CaiRollers, Egypt’s only roller derby team, in 2012.

I had played for London Rollergirls,” Turk said, “and she [Bickham] for New Orleans, and we met during our first week here in September 2011.”

Both worked at the American International School in Egypt and found a mutual bond in derby, so they decided to start a team. After about a year of planning and talking to people about joining, they had their first practice. The team currently has 22 active members, only three of whom are expatriates from other countries, a fact that founders are happy about. 

Turk, who is commonly known by her derby name, Indie Hanna, wants the team to be owned by Egyptians. “CaiRollers belongs to Cairo women and the expats that want to support them,” Turk said. “The team is here to stay because the derby bug has bitten our skaters. They are passionate and have a sense of ownership.”

Cairollers-Founders

During the first 10 weeks of training, everything is free.  There are no team dues or fees to rent gear. However, none of the gear is available in Egypt, which poses a major challenge for the growth of the team.  “Starting an international gear fund for CaiRollers, where we asked teams around the world to donate their used gear to us, was the shifting point,” Turk said. This allowed the team to offer loaner kits to new girls, which proved to be a huge asset in recruiting locally.

Diab said she was grateful for the international support when she relayed a story of a team member who was injured during derby and required major medical attention. She said teams from all over the world helped to raise money and the player was taken care of.  “It was not a certain team in one country,” Diab said. “It was a collective effort from different teams around the world, which is really awesome. You can see how all differences melt at one point and people are united over one thing and they decide to help each other.”

This sense of unity also extends to teammates from different backgrounds who otherwise might not run in the same circles. “Rahma and I understand each other,” Turk said, “because we are both super-sweet and chill in our daily lives and we are both very competitive and aggressive when we play. We scream at each other and get angry and it’s all good. It’s a channel, an outlet. It feels like balance.”

Diab first came to practice last year after a friend invited her to an open-skate practice, not realizing that this was actually a game with rules. She had never skated before. “I was scared at the beginning to get hurt or break an arm or something, but after falling several times I realized that it’s OK to fall as long as I have my full gear on,” Diab said. “It was fun because there were a bunch of other girls learning how to skate with me and we used to laugh at each other. It’s easier to learn in a group.”

Derby has given Diab a confidence that she didn’t have before. She enjoys showing off her new arm muscles and doesn’t mind the occasional bruise that still comes from falling down. This has become the case for her in other areas of life as well. “In terms of harassment, girls now are more open about telling their stories and more open about defending their rights and not being silent about it.” Diab said. “I hope [roller derby] gets more attention from local people … because I think it’s very liberating for girls and women.”

Diab’s derby name is Derbina, which she says was inspired by the Internet meme Derpina, a female rage comic character.

In roller derby, a game is referred to as a “bout” where two teams of five compete against each other. Each team has a “jammer,” the scoring skater. The two teams skate together in a “pack” as both jammers attempt to pass the pack to score points. Opposing team members try to keep the other jammer from getting through while teammates try to help their jammer pass the pack. Each round is called a “jam” and lasts 2 minutes with a 30 second break after. There are two 30-minute periods full of 2-minute jams.

“It’s insta-family; it’s the same language,” CaiRoller co-founder Bickham said. “From Sweden to South Africa, literally, and we all speak the same language … it’s just a really nice community.”

Since there is no other team in the area, CaiRollers must split themselves into two teams in order to compete in a bout.  They recently had what was coined “the mother of all bouts” with Desert Storm: Isis Crisis vs. Killa’patras. Due to a loss in players last year, this was the team’s first official bout this year. About 130 spectators attended.

“We all know how it feels when someone falls or when someone can’t do a certain move,” Diab said. “We’re all equal. We don’t see any differences between us. This is what I really like and how I think it’s going to connect people.

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Christena Dowsett is a full-time independent photojournalist and stringer for Getty Images based in East Africa. She graduated in May 2010 with a degree in photojournalism from the University of North Texas, followed by two years as a staff photographer at the Texarkana Gazette in Texarkana, Texas. In 2013 she was selected to be apart of the Eddie Adams Workshop XXVI.

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