The female motorcycle riders “raising hell” in Manila

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The Litas Manila is an all-female motorcyle group that grants women support — both on and off their bikes. In photo from left: Conch Tiglao, Nikki Orial, Karen Kennedy, Riza Keating, Gaki Azurin, Erika Magpantay, and Cal Soesanto. Photo by JILSON TIU

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In full gear and designer jackets, a motorcycle group rides through Manila, one of the world’s most densely populated city. Upshifting and downshifting from lane to lane through traffic and potholes, they meet at a gas station before hitting the expressway. A small crowd draws around them to admire the bikes.  

Clad in black, a slender form removes a smooth and shiny helmet.

“It’s a girl!” a man says in horror.

The Litas Manila launched a year ago. They are part of a global all-female motorcycle charter, established by Jessica Haggett in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015. The group has expanded to 27 countries around the globe. The Litas’ are in over 180 cities, with close to 5,000 women riders. There are no membership fees. The goal is to provide a worldwide chain that grants women support — both on and off their bikes.

A branch begins with three women who believe in The Litas’ code to help build the local motorcycle community. “I was searching for a group of women to ride with,” says founder Gaki Azurin, a fitness trainer and accomplished drummer of all-female punk rock band, Flying Ipis. She had heard of The Litas while abroad. Together with co-founders Carol Karthe and Erika Fernandez, they signed up to form their own network of Litas in Manila.

SONT8814.jpg The Litas Manila are part of a global all-female motorcycle charter, established by Jessica Haggett in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015. Photo by JILSON TIU

SONT8942.jpg A branch begins with three women who believe in The Litas’ code to help build the local motorcycle community. “I was searching for a group of women to ride with,” says founder Gaki Azurin (pictured), a fitness trainer and accomplished drummer of all-female punk rock band, Flying Ipis. Photo by JILSON TIU

Unlike the majority of male-oriented motorcycle clubs, any woman of social standing, age or bike brand is encouraged to join and call herself a “Lita.” Their strong presence online has acquired a steady stream of followers. Media and advertising companies are slowly picking up on the all-female trend.

Biking is such a male-dominated sport and because The Litas are free of men, people come up with the belief that the members are lesbian. Some are, and some are not. They are bombarded with gender-related questions that have little to do with the aspect of riding.

“It’s great you can ride, but can you cook and clean?” Azurin says. It is one of many snide remarks thrown at her since she began riding in 2010. It is her main mode of transportation to get to work every day. Armed with a Ducati Scrambler and her popular motorcycle video blog, she advocates for biking safety and education.

It takes guts and nerves of steel to navigate through the madness of the streets of Manila. A car may get you to your destination safely for obvious reasons, but the adrenaline rush of riding a motorcycle is more appealing. With cult films like “The Wild One,” “Easy Rider,” “Hells Angels on Wheels,” and the Che Guevarra biopic “The Motorcycle Diaries,” men have long turned to motorcycles to express freedom and bravery. Women are always portrayed behind, with their arms wrapped around a man’s waist.

SONT8785.jpg On each trip of The Litas, there is always a lead bike and a tail bike in the group. Photo by JILSON TIU

DJI_0205.jpg Each Lita has their own reasons to ride, their bike choice reflects their personalities. All agree that gender should never play a role in wanting to do anything in life. Photo by JILSON TIU

On a Sunday morning, Azurin and six of The Litas travel south to the outskirts of Laguna. Each has their own reasons to ride, their bike choice reflects their personalities. All agree that gender should never play a role in wanting to do anything in life.

“I’m the little girl with the big bike,” Cal Soesanto laughs as she shares how she first learned to ride in America. A DJ and strong LGBT advocate, her diminutive frame has not hindered her to push a 883cc bike. However, riding on the undisciplined roads of the Philippines, Soesanto can’t help but throw out a number of expletives. She shares her love for Harley Davidsons with Riza Keating. “My husband got me into riding and we now travel together,” Keating says as she flips her long black hair before resting on her Chopper.  

Other members of the group include IT specialist Nikki Orial. Her fascination with bikes began at the age of 12, as she would watch her father ride a Ninja as a child. She now owns a Ducati Scrambler Full Throttle. There’s also Erika Magpantay, an accountant at an advertising agency, and she admits it is her first ride with The Litas. She has travelled on her Yamaha MT-07 with other motorcycle groups through long distances from Manila down to Dumaguete.

SONT8690.jpg “I’m the little girl with the big bike,” Cal Soesanto (pictured) shares she first learned to ride in America. A DJ and strong LGBT advocate, her diminutive frame has not hindered her to push a 883cc bike. Photo by JILSON TIU

SONT9040.jpg Biking is such a male-dominated sport and because The Litas are free of men, people come up with the belief that the members are lesbian. Some are, and some are not. They are bombarded with gender-related questions that have little to do with the aspect of riding. Photo by JILSON TIU

Also joining the group that day is Karen Kennedy, a British-Filipino, who works as a Corporate Wellness Trainer. She just learned to navigate her BMW R nineT a few months ago. Her husband got her into the sport. “It is humbling to be approached by kids, especially the young girls. Their faces light up.”

Taking risks and being on the brink of danger serves as an attribute associated with men, where the gear and machine act as an extension of one’s manhood. It is a constant competition as to who has the fastest and flashiest bike. Whereas, women display care and support. They look out for one another without putting preference on who is new or the more experienced rider.

In general, men have been kind to them on the roads. When approached during standstill in Manila traffic, they are treated with awe and respect. The freeway is another story. Some have experienced being cut down by jerks in cars or by male riders. There is a clear lack of education in the country on how to be courteous to all drivers.

On each trip of The Litas, there is always a lead bike and a tail bike in the group. Parking is a major dilemma in the city and only a few establishments allow storefront spaces for big bikes. A designated driver or people at key pit stops are made available on the way in case of emergency. There is safety in numbers and the end goal is to reach the destination relaxed and in one piece.

SONT9194.jpg “My husband got me into riding and we now travel together,” Riza Keating (pictured) says as she flips her long black hair before resting on her Chopper. Photo by JILSON TIU

SONT8883.jpg Karen Kennedy, a British-Filipino, who works as a Corporate Wellness Trainer learned to navigate her BMW R nineT a few months ago. Her husband got her into the sport. Photo by JILSON TIU

Based on the current Philippine road statistics, motorcycle-related injuries compromise close to 70 percent of the total identified transport incidents nationwide. More than half of the registered vehicles in the country are motorcycles. Riders have been the top victims of road accidents in Manila since 2010. Driving and riding licenses in the country are easy to get and are often released with a bribe, or without taking the proper road tests.

“There is still discrimination against women, not just on the roads but in the local workforce,” Conch Tiglao says. She does not let others dictate what women should and not do. She works in corporate communications and is the first Litas Manila initiate. She darts around town on her Kawasaki W800.

The Litas Manila is close to a year old. They hope to plan longer trips outside of the metropolis. An activity is scheduled once a month not only to ride together but to attend workshops and wrench nights to hone their motorcycle skills. They have formed strong friendships. Some of the members have even been invited to ride at an all-female event in the U.S. in October.  

As the girls finish their coffee to regroup and leave the rest of us in the dust, I ask Azurin what advice she’d like to impart to those interested in riding.

SONT9116.jpg “Work hard and invest. Buy your own bike, ride your own bike. Get educated and never scrimp on gear. A good helmet will save your life. Just go out and do it,” says Gaki Azurin. Photo by JILSON TIU

SONT9002.jpg Unlike the majority of male-oriented motorcycle clubs, any woman of social standing, age or bike brand is encouraged to join and call herself a “Lita.” Photo by JILSON TIU

“Work hard and invest.  Buy your own bike, ride your own bike. Get educated and never scrimp on gear. A good helmet will save your life. Just go out and do it,” she says as she moves towards her Ducati. The shiny rose gold tank adds an attractive, feminine touch.

The Litas stand to raise and break social norms, to create a local culture of female riders.   

The deep sound of each engine bounces off the walls of the parking lot. The ladies zip up their streamlined jackets one by one.

The men get out of their cars to stop and stare.

True to The Litas spirit, keep riding and “Raise Hell, Babes!”